North Korean leader Kim Jong-un guides a target-striking contest of the special operation forces of the Korean People's Army in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on August 25, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

It would seem that the US Pacific Command has let the cat out of the bag. USPACOM released the following statement: “North American Aerospace Defense Command, NORAD, determined the missile launch from North Korea did not pose a threat to North America.” This declaration tells us three things:

  1. The United States does not believe that North Korea has a nuclear-capable missile and thus does not see the launch of a ballistic missile as any threat to the United States.
  2. The US interest is in protecting North America; nothing was said about protecting any allies or even non-North American parts of the United States such as Hawaii or Guam.
  3. In regard to protecting the United States (or at least the North American part of the United States), clearly the US administration does not see North Korea as a serious threat at this time.

Of course, the North Koreans are launching short-, medium- and long-range missiles, threatening to wipe out Guam, and are showing videos of the US Capitol going up in smoke. But no matter, because the administration of President Donald Trump has now signaled that this is mostly saber-rattling and rhetoric.

Maybe they think this is how Kim Jong-un is keeping himself in power – the classic way, by creating external enemies. But meanwhile his scientists and engineers are at work designing re-entry warheads for their nuclear weapons while, at the same time, working on miniaturization of those weapons.

No one really knows how much progress they are making, or how much help they are getting from outside. What deals does North Korea have both for its missiles and for its nuclear program? All the signals are that it has been getting plenty of outside technology support, some from Russia and China for sure, but maybe from elsewhere too. Iran has a very aggressive and big technology-acquisition effort and probably is lending a hand; others too may be selling equipment and supplies to North Korea.

Technology does not grow out of a hat – it requires a sophisticated industrial establishment, something largely missing in North Korea. So if you connect the dots, then the help is flowing and the US has done very little to intercede and try and stop it. One wonders why.

But notwithstanding the flow of supplies, technology, engineering and outside support, no one doubts progress is being made, and the US says it keeps getting surprised, as for example by North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missile (which seems the real thing), or by showing off a miniature nuclear device that looks like a miniature nuclear device.

All of this raises questions about the waiting game of the Trump  administration. Clearly at some point the North Korean capability will cross a tipping point, and Kim Jong-un could chance a nuclear strike. Would he hit Guam? Alaska? South Korea? Japan? What would the US do? Send humanitarian aid?

Compounding the problem is that US concerns are not focused on protecting an ally, no matter what we may be telling them. That is as clear as it could be from the latest NORAD statement. Sure, we will sell them missile defense equipment, and yes we will try and reassure them with naval and air-force deployments. But the bottom line seems to be that they are on their own.

Which at least for South Korea, and maybe for Japan, is approximately where they want to be. They don’t want to be sucked into an American war, and they don’t want a bellicose America to puff up North Korea’s little dictator. The South Koreans are demanding consultations with the US before any action is taken, including a veto. One can hardly blame them, since they will bear the burden of any widespread war.

But at the same time the agendas are really remarkably different. South Korea, at least its new government, wants reconciliation with the North, of some kind. Perhaps not unification, but in the bigger picture maybe political realignment. You can bet this is also China’s agenda, and maybe Russia’s too. If the idea works, then South and North Korea could realign their mutual interests.

Some years ago the late sociologist and defense expert Fred Ikle said Korean unification would lead to a nuclear Korean Peninsula. He was right, but it may not take reunification, and South Korea might share its military technology if the North shared its nuclear and missile capabilities. Anything is possible, especially now that US power in the Pacific is perceptively far less than it was a decade or more ago.

Indeed, that represents another case of hand-sitting and trying to exploit business opportunities in China in exchange for surrendering America’s dominant role in Pacific affairs and thereby undercutting its  security as Chinese power rises.

From the US point of view, hand-sitting does not a policy make. It just kicks the can down the road, hoping something will change to America’s benefit. Of course, if this is the case it is a nasty illusion. The US power base in the Pacific is lower than ever, its missile defenses are full of holes and untrustworthy and even its ability to defend its own territory is open to doubt, because so few missile defenses have been deployed and most of them have a very mixed history of effectiveness.

As I have written elsewhere, in the short term a good policy start would be to push for regime change in North Korea, starting with American sponsorship of the alternative. Not only would this give Kim some more nightmares, it would also signal to both the South Koreans and the Chinese that the US intends to be a strong political player on the Peninsula. If we Americans don’t do this we are largely in a passive political posture from which no good can come.

Stephen Bryen

Dr Stephen Bryen has 40 years of leadership in government and industry. He has served as a senior staff director of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the deputy under secretary of defense for trade security policy, as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, as the president of Delta Tech Inc, as the president of Finmeccanica North America, and as a commissioner of the US China Security Review Commission.

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