As domestic news and scandals swirl, an issue that has lately been on the back burner continues to be a major concern for the United States: North Korea.
Unfortunately, unlike the Transpacific Partnership agreement or U.S.-Mexican border insecurity, North Korea is a problem that’s not likely to go away anytime soon; in fact, it’s a problem that’s destined to get worse in the medium term, and in the long term, it could be disastrous if the right steps aren’t taken.
As most watchers of the news are aware, the regime of Kim Jong Un has launched 17 missiles this year (with another test said to be days away), including an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that appears capable of traveling at least 4,200 miles. The United States has stationed two aircraft carrier groups off the Korean peninsula to keep tabs on missile activity and movements in the Hermit Kingdom, and it’s deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to potentially intercept multiple North Korean missiles if they were launched.
As of July 5, the Pentagon assessed that utilizing its KN-17 two-stage missiles, North Korea is capable of hitting either Alaska or Hawaii. As a precaution, the latter state has been planning civil defense drills to counter possibilities that a North Korean missile could be launched at the mid-Pacific islands.
Over the last 25 years, North Korea has bluffed and stalemated its way out of six-nation talks six times, enabling it to continue down the path of bomb and missile development while it dangled the disarmament carrot over the heads of the U.S. and other countries in the region. To any objective observer, a North Korean offer of “talks” should be looked at as nothing more than an attempt to cheat and buy time.
And time is running short if the U.S. hopes to waylay North Korea’s stated objective of being able to target the Continental U.S. with atomic weapons. On July 4, North Korea made the announcement that it’s now capable of striking a target with a nuke “anywhere in the world,” but this was perceived by most analysts to be a blatant exaggeration.
Most experts believe that North Korea has mastered neither the technology allowing its missiles greater than a 4,200-mile range nor the ability for a nuclear warhead to withstand the intense heat of reentry into the atmosphere after the bulk of an intercontinental journey has been traveled. These two obstacles, however, would appear to be the only ones that are currently keep North Korea from targeting any major city of the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped projectile. Since Kim Jong Un’s regime appears to be hell-bent on conquering these barriers, analysts have put a window on the day that North Korea is able to achieve its goals as being anywhere from 18 to 36 months away. Given the highly accelerated pace of the country’s weapons development, the actual timeline likely leans toward the shorter end of the scale rather than the longer one.
And of course, this assumes that if North Korea wanted to attack the United States, it would do so in a conventional way, i.e., with a missile launched from its territory topped with a nuclear warhead. Other scenarios that could achieve the same result are less discussed — namely, that North Korea could, in theory, float a submarine, tanker or cigarette boat carrying a nuclear device into the harbors of New York City and/or the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. and detonate them, delivering untold catastrophe to America.
Or, the rogue state could attempt to sell nuclear devices to non-state actors such as ISIS or al-Qaeda, which could also use such weapons in equally horrible ways. Such “asymmetric” warfare scenarios (which also need to take into account North Korean stocks of biological and chemical weapons) should be keeping people awake at the Pentagon, if they aren’t prodding President Trump to take action — either behind the scenes or overtly.
Another scenario that’s also been discussed is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the U.S. — a move that would require a nuclear missile but not necessarily an ability to precisely target a city or even possibly for it to survive much of a re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. In this terrifying hypothetical plot, an electromagnetic shockwave would disable all electronic devices within the line of sight (figure a 1000-mile radius that could encompass much of the Continental U.S.) of an atmospheric nuclear explosion, meaning that virtually all electronics as we know them — cell phones, computers, televisions, radios, etc. (even the starter motors of automobiles) — would cease to function, effectively disabling them permanently. Experts are divided on how real this possibility is, given North Korea’s success (or lack thereof) with its missiles, but such a scenario should not be discounted.
In the meantime, most analysts agree that short of military action, there’s little the U.S. can do to convince the North Koreans to slow, halt or reverse their nuclear program. Most observers agree that North Korea sees its nuclear weapons as absolutely essential to its survival, and therefore the chances of the country giving them up voluntarily appear to be next to nil. Even though there’s been discussion of much stronger sanctions on imports and trade applied to Kim Jong Un’s regime, there’s been zero evidence that these have had any substantial effect in the past. Nonetheless, the U.S. has announced new sanctions on Chinese companies that do business with North Korea, potentially hurting the latter’s ability to raise needed funds to pay for many of the Western luxury items that keep its elites well-fed and happy.
But North Korea is used to going without necessities for long periods of time. Even in the last two decades, famine and poor management of food stocks have killed an estimated half million North Koreans in rural areas, and former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il famously said his country’s citizens must “chew on roots” to survive while he himself gorged on meat, fine wines, chocolate and other luxury items that were off-limits to 99 percent of his population.
As the current range of non-military options at the bargaining table appears to be near-useless and/or ineffective, there’s been increased talk about what a military approach to the North Korean dilemma would look like. Most experts agree that a strike of any kind — whether it be conventional and highly limited or nuclear and large-scale — would be absolutely devastating in terms of the number of casualties ultimately inflicted, either directly or via retaliation and/or collateral damage.
Most experts agree that no matter what the eventuality, North Korea would ultimately lose any war between it and the U.S., but the potential damage that could be dealt out to South Korea, Japan, China, Russia or even the U.S. itself would be fearsome. Former President Bill Clinton, when given the option of knocking out North Korea’s nuclear sites in 1994, was told that an approximate casualty count of any such attack would start at one million and that economic damage would start at $1 trillion. Those numbers likely have not changed in the intervening years and probably have only increased.
At the same time, from a strategic point of view, given the growing danger of the North Korean weapons program, the idea of attacking the rogue nation sooner rather than later — either in a lightning-quick, highly targeted “decapitation” strike (which U.S. Special Forces teams have begun to train for) or in a massive, overwhelming assault targeting all of North Korea’s known nuclear sites — is tempting.
As planners at the Pentagon are all too aware, “the clock is ticking” on North Korea’s endgame scenario, which most analysts agree is the stockpiling of hundreds of nuclear missiles and weapons with which the nation could threaten any country on Earth. Analysts say this scenario is unallowable at any cost, because of the unpredictability and desperation of the North Korean leadership.
Almost certainly, an immediate strategy of nuclear blackmail could force multiple nations to give in to North Korean demands of aid, trade or exceedingly unfavorable treaty agreements. By dint of a nuclear “Sword of Damocles,” North Korea could achieve a status only dreamed of by despots and unhinged strongmen in world history. North Korea likely learned the painful lesson of Muammar Gaddafi, who was on the verge of assembling weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the 2000s, only to give them up and then be slaughtered by Western-backed forces several years later. Instead, North Korea’s WMDs are the potential ticket to a much brighter future than the reckless nation could otherwise achieve over decades or even centuries at its current pace of development (towering new high-rises and modern subway stations in Pyongyang notwithstanding).
It’s likely that North Korea plotted out its current path of weapons development and bluffing at peace negotiations years or even decades ago. The current strategy of equal parts bluster and simultaneous weapons development and testing is an extremely cunning one that will take deliberation by some of the U.S.’s brightest minds to counter. There’s no doubt that America would ultimately win any conflict between the two countries, but every sane person hopes that military action would be the very last option to be considered in a confrontation.
There’s only one other choice that some academics have discussed — the possibility of the U.S. and other nations essentially shrugging their shoulders at North Korea’s consummated weapons development — but this assumes that North Korean behavior, once the country’s nuclear ambitions are fulfilled, will somehow be more level-headed and sane than past proclamations and behavior have demonstrated. Ultimately, this is the hole in North Korea’s public relations strategy, and the one that maintains the urgency of the U.S. to do anything and everything except wait in confronting the North Korea threat.