North Korea’s launch of an ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) in early July, followed by another even longer-range missile 24 days later, has generated a lot of buzz. While the detailed analyses of those launches have yet to be published, we do know that both missiles are clearly of a class whose range is at least 3,400 miles (5,500 kilometers).
The fact that Pyongyang can now reach out to touch much of America is not yet a significant security dilemma for Washington, however. Let’s analyze the true significance of the North’s latest achievements.
What has not changed
Much of South Korea has been within range of Pyongyang’s artillery, unguided rockets, and short-range missiles, for some time. Indeed, such threats against Seoul and its huge metropolitan surroundings have existed for many years. As for Japan, North Korea has long had the ability to deliver some type of warhead to much of the island nation. However, without a reliable re-entry vehicle to protect a nuclear device during re-entry into the atmosphere, a missile of any longer range adds little to the threat level for Seoul or Tokyo.
Even when North Korea does achieve a reliable nuclear delivery system, American deterrence first developed during the Cold War will still be effective. US ICBMs are far superior to North Korea’s – more accurate, more powerful, more reliable, and more plentiful. Unless it feels an American attack is imminent, Pyongyang is not about to pre-emptively attack the US, for the retaliation would be swift and staggeringly destructive.
What has changed
North Korea has indeed proved its ability to hit, even if it cannot yet hurt, US military bases in the Pacific – not only Okinawa, but Guam and Hawaii as well. Moreover, the North can target the mainland US well beyond Alaska, including its West Coast, heartlands and perhaps even further, even if they are most likely impotent projectiles at this time.
This draws the US deeper into the game – it can no longer be a reluctant and distant player. Even though Washington would eventually prevail in a nuclear shootout with Pyongyang, the threat of nuclear weapons will soon work both ways. If anything, this ought to convince US President Trump that any inclination to disengage from the world is not prudent.
The result is that we have a stand-off, just with much higher stakes – like those that existed between the West and its adversaries during the Cold War. In such a situation, when all options are bad, North Korea becomes the equal of the United States. The West and its allies will have to deal with Pyongyang in the same way they dealt with Moscow and Beijing back then – with forethought and intelligence. We have done this before; we ought to be able to do it again.
A happy ending – for now
South Koreans are desensitized to bluster and threats from the North and seem to be taking recent developments somewhat in stride. Conversely, for Japan and America, this is seen as a new threat level, though one not fully developed, and both are understandably concerned. There are, however, good reasons not to panic.
Despite the apparent inability of many Western diplomats and politicians to understand Kim Jong Un, he is very much a rational actor, far more adept at reading his opponents than they are at fathoming his unconventional thinking and asymmetrical tactics. Kim will not initiate hostilities – for he knows that would be the demise of his regime.
The North’s possession of ICBMs without a reliable re-entry system has little immediate impact on the long-standing face-off between the two countries
But this is where Washington finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. The conventional thinking is that the US must now make some show of force to once again demonstrate its military might and national resolve. Unfortunately, fly-bys of American nuclear-capable bombers do not ease tensions any more than stationing US Navy carrier task force groups in Korean waters. In fact, these actions feed the North’s fear that the US is readying an attack. Should that fear boil over, something no one wants might happen.
Tensions are quite high, but we have weathered similar situations before. Absent a serious miscalculation – as likely by Washington as by Pyongyang these days – the North’s possession of ICBMs without a reliable re-entry system has little immediate impact on the long-standing face-off between the two countries.
Everyone can stand down from their battle stations while our military planners continue to work on effective counter measures. The sky is not falling – yet.
The important development is:
The US can no longer credibly threaten NK, unless it is prepared to have one or two of its major cities turned to ash. As risking the lives of a couple million Americans is not acceptable to the US, it seems NK is about to win this battle of wills… From now on NK will be able to live in peace and focus on its economic develpment, and the US will have to get used to living with an embarassing loss of face…
Nonsense Nuno! The US has missle defense systems that can shoot primitive North Korean Nukes down before they enter American airspace. The Thaad that is currently deployed in S. Korea is just the first of many such systems that will be built in Japan and S Korea. Additionally The US will encourage it’s allies Japan, N Korea, and yes even Taiwan to develop nuclear missle capability of their own. This will shift the balance of power in East Asia to the US favor and impact China as well as her puppet state
Gregg Slater Would you be willing to bet the lives of two million Americans on the probability of your being able to shoot down any NK ICBM’s?… Suppose you missed…
Nuno Cardoso da Silva ; In 2-3 years tops, it will be a safe bet!
In my opinion, America is only causing tension to be able to sell its missile defence system (Thaad) to Japan and South Korea.
The Asian guys are one blood and must be granted their will to unite.
NK is not as dangerous a state, as USA.
The USA conduct is speedily uniting China and Russian and the two together makes America no giant on battlefield.
President Trump, make no mistake to touch NK, as your enemies are ever ready to silent your country.
ok north korea
Irrational display of military strength or show of force by the US will never solve the problem on ground, for peace and stability to reign in the region, the US must apply dialogue, maturity and tolerance.
Gregg Slater this goes to u many countries use reliable re entry for their nuke which no defense system in the world can shot down
Gregg Slater I understad the argunent but I thought that the whole purpse of thee Nuclear Prolifertaun Treaty was to try to redice, not increase the ownership of nuke weapons, led by of course, the USA? Secondly THAAD may be effective but the problem the US has (just like it had in Europe in the CW) is that the ROK may not take too kindly American aggresion towards NK, if that results in NK decidng to test the THAAD system in Seoul (an easier target than teh US). In other words the US is perceived by ROK (and possibly Japan too) as having "no skin in the game" and the only risk to the US is that another country gets nuked instead, in response to their calling the bluff of NK…Finally I think THAAD deploymet sin Taiwan would almost certainly lead to war between China and America – an unintended consequence of badlty thought out strategy vis-a-vis NK. You may also consider that there is another vast country involved in this diplmatic geometry – Russia, which you have not (yet!) considered – and the implications of its involvement in any/some of these scenarios.
When insanity sits overv a pile of explosives all logic gets beat.
USA insane to worry in any way about North Korea, who as far as I know wants to #1 end the Korean war (the first one!) and #2 stop USA / South Korea from constantly holding war games alongside North Korea. Seems worth a talk to me
Johnny: NK is not asking for much but to talk seriously. USA totally and most deliberately misconstrues efforts. USA plus extra: arguing point for some small dicks in Washington DC to call for a war, paid for by oil and similar .. large `interests’ want war, not caring about fate of planet Earth.
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