When we last left the boy wonder of North Korea, he was threatening to launch nuclear missiles against Tokyo, Guam, and Austin, Texas (?!), and turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” And unlike the tirades of the past (the family seems to produce an unusual number of drama queens), this time (perhaps partly thanks to Iran), North Korea may have the means to make good on some of those threats. We have been worried, and rightly so.
Then real people were killed and maimed by real bombs in Boston, and the media (always the one trick pony) turned its full attention from international nukes to domestic pressure cookers.
So whatever happened to that thing in North Korea, anyway?
Answer: It is still there. It is still dangerous. And assuming they let us out of the crisis this time, it will be worse the next time, and the next.
North Korea retains a huge land army, a few aircraft and submarines, and thousands of artillery pieces burrowed into rock hillsides, close enough to release a devastating fire on Seoul. It is a bad situation, but one we have lived with for decades. By itself, this is no reason for new alarm, even if the North Korean rhetoric is more bellicose than usual.
What is new is a Defense Intelligence Agency opinion that North Korea may have succeeded in mating a small nuclear weapon with a ballistic missile, putting our allies, our military, and citizens on our own soil at risk. This is in the wake of another North Korean underground detonation of some sort, and the orbiting of a “package” that could presage the placement of nuclear attack capabilities in space.
Added to all this is the growing concern over a possible Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) weapon. Nuclear detonations are known to release a “pulse” of high intensity electromagnetic radiation strong enough to overload and destroy sensitive electronic circuits. In theory, if a nuclear weapon were properly designed and exploded at high altitude, it might destroy all electronic circuits in a footprint hundreds of miles across. The American cities featured on the famous “targeting map” from a recent North Korean photo might find all electronic assets, from watches to power plants, destroyed in the blink of an eye – and without a single human casualty on the ground.
Put all this together with an opaque North Korean leadership that seems to thrive on brinksmanship, and the result is a dangerous situation bound to get more dangerous over time.
Fortunately, in addition to negotiations and the “best efforts” of our “friend” China, we do have one more ace in the hole – a limited ballistic missile defense. But the story here reminds one of the old joke about the man who fell out of an airplane. Fortunately, he had a parachute. Unfortunately, it didn’t work . . . etc., etc., etc., right down to the moment that he missed the pitchfork in the haystack on the ground . . . but also missed the haystack.
Yes we have some shipboard radars and shipboard interceptors to engage one phase of hostile missile flight. And we have a few ground based radars and interceptors if attackers get past that thin line. But the number of interceptors is limited, and the 2009 buy of additional interceptors (which take four years to produce) was cancelled by President Obama when he first took office. So additional rockets are not available to reinforce our limited defenses. And the North Korean plan may be to launce multiple types of rockets and missiles to confuse our systems and possibly cause us to waste interceptors on bogus launches.
If we get through the next several years without a North Korean missile attack, we will see additional ground-based interceptors added to our Pacific “shield”, thanks to a recent resource decision by the new Secretary of Defense. But in a reprise of the fortunate-unfortunate man falling from the airplane, they will be taken from a similar thin shield against Iranian missiles that might one day be fired at our allies, troops and citizens with a cross-European flight trajectory. Good news: moving money means we will have more defenses in Asia. Bad news: this sets up the Iranians to play the same Rope-a-Dope game with us on the other side of the globe.
Also, the ships we recently dispatched to reinforce the Pacific shield can’t stay forever, and there are not enough similar ships in the fleet to keep them circling in Japanese waters indefinitely.
What’s the solution?
For sixty years we have been playing for time, hoping a responsible regime will come to power in North Korea. So much for a strategy of hope.
But the alternative is to take a big risk – perhaps shooting down any missiles launched, with the cooperation of Japan who has defenses of its own. This is dangerous because North Korea might use this as a pretext to attack Seoul and kill thousands before bartering a peace. And it sets a dangerous precedent for the next time we want to test a weapon over the open ocean and somebody else claims to feel threatened.
Of course, we might argue in the court of world opinion that this is a special case, since the North Korean leadership has been proclaiming a state of war for weeks. We might argue that under these conditions their “test” constitutes an act of war and our response is legal under international law.
Beyond that, what if our interceptors miss? What does that tell opponents worldwide? Or what if our rockets hit but opponents produce replacement missiles before we can produce replacement interceptors? What if? What if? . . ..
This is a high risk game. Nuclear war and many thousands of lives are on the line. The story playing out in Boston is important. But we better be able to handle two crises at one time. Because “that thing in Korea” is not going away any time soon.