[I’m posting this at midnight my time. I’ll add links/references later].
About fifteen years ago during the holiday season in Manila, my wife and about a dozen other strangers were held up in the back of an FX, public transit in the form of a covered pickup truck found in Manila. The robbers were armed with a homemade paltik gun that was as liable to either accidentally fire and harm passengers or the assailants or not fire at all. Wanting the situation over as quickly as possible without anyone getting hurt, accidentally or otherwise, everyone promptly handed over their cash and jewelry.
We have all seen enough movies to know how it would likely have played out had the passengers scoffed at the robbers for their cheap little weapon. The robbers would probably have fired a warning shot and become more aggressive to prove to the passengers that their threat was genuine – that the gun worked and that they were prepared to use it. The Filipinos needed no convincing, though, and resigned themselves to a temporary – if costly – defeat the moment firearms came out.
We are now witnessing a much riskier version play out before our eyes, with North Korea wielding paltik rockets and nuclear warheads. The new generation of Hwasong IRBM and ICBM missiles are just as liable to fall over on their firing table and kill the ground crews as they are to launch successfully and travel ten times higher than the space station. And so the Americans begin saying “well, actually…” as everyone else drops earings and watches into the bag. They are liable to escalate the situation for everyone and maybe get a lot of people hurt.
Pyongyang is also demanding a type of surrender. They’re not asking for wallets and rings, but instead (rightfully) expect that US plans for pre-emptive strikes and regime change are officially taken ‘off the table.’ To do anything else is would be like openly plotting to subdue those Manila robbers right in front of them. And yet US political and military leaders, and an entire pundit class, are telling the passengers that there’s nothing to fear (yet) because those ridiculous homemade paltik weapons can’t possibly work as the aggressors advertise, and to use them would be suicidal. They couldn’t miss the point by a wider margin if they tried.
While we are seeing less of it now than before, these American officials and pundits often seem more interested in putting North Korean leaders on the psychologist’s couch in absentia rather than making reasonable threat assessments. After their first nuclear test almost a decade ago, the conventional wisdom seemed to be that their nuclear program was just a very dangerous extortion racket – the entire point of their nuclear weapons program appearently an attempt to get free food stamps.
As they test ever longer-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying these nukes, it is now becoming evident that North Korea has no intention of trading these weapons for anything other than full reunification of the peninsula on their terms. Now count how many US officials are demanding that North Korea commits to dismantling their nuclear weapons as precondition for negotiations
An honest answer to the question of what they want with all this lethal weaponry is pretty simple: nuclear weapons are incredibly coercive tools in limiting the behavior of rival states. Narang Vipin offers a useful typography of how regional powers posture their nuclear weapons (i.e., what they deploy and signal about the use of their nuclear weapons) that break clean from Cold War-era superpower nuclear doctrines. States that have declared their nuclear capability have one of two postures: assured retaliation and asymmetric escalation.
China is an example of an assured retaliation posture. In contrast to the US and Russia, China does not keep their weapons on hair trigger alert (they don’t even keep nuclear warheads mounted on their missiles). They first signaled their capabilities through nuclear tests in an earlier era and now missile tests and parades today. With a declared ‘no first use’ policy, their entire posture is aimed at convincing the US, Russia, and India that using nukes against them would be a horrible idea. Within hours or days, TEL’s will roll out of their caves and deliver a punishing blow to whoever nuked China. If China were compared to a homeowner, their posture is something like “throw a grenade inside our house, expect the same back.”
Unfortunately, this is not North Korea’s posture. Theirs is one of asymmetric escalation. Asymmetric escalation would likely have kept Saddam Hussein in power had he possessed Kim Jong-un’s arsenal in 2003. Such a nuclear posture would have meant that he would be expected to try to nuke US forces in the first hours of the invasion. A few hidden mobile ICBM’s might have deterred either a continued march to Baghdad or a US nuclear counter-strike. This scenario is exactly the posture North Korea is signaling with statements, missile tests, and nuclear tests.
With a smaller nuclear and conventional force, they signal that they will use nukes first and early if a conventional military threat emerges against them. North Korea signals this with hyperbole about firing off nuclear-armed missiles at the slightest provocation. It is the most kinetic variant of “the best defense is a good offense.” It is, they believe, their ace to play against ever having a regime change strike launched against them. Returning to the homeowner analogy, their posture is that they start throwing grenades the moment anyone tries to kick down their door.
At issue is that the US government and many pundits don’t seem to believe them. You will hear the same thing whether you open a podcast and hear Ben Rhodes, see Lyndsey Graham on the Sunday shows, or read a more reasonable #NeverTrump Republican like Tom Nichols. As if captured by some sorcery, they can begin every analysis of the North Korean situation by first dismissing the existence of any North Korean nuclear missile threat. These national security experts never seem able to see the risk in discrediting a deterrence a hostile adversary has bet everything on. LOL, Nork missiles.
North Korea’s missiles are never ready: they have not yet miniaturized nuclear warheads, they aren’t accurate enough, or the re-entry vehicle technology is too challenging. While they might have mastered one or the other of these, the possibility that they have reasonably developed all of them concurrent with truly impressive solid and liquid ballistic missile development is impossible. At least for now, because the new North Korean gadgets can’t possibly work. us. A more recent spin is that if they do, it’s OK because their missiles are hacked and stealth drones are watching missile sites 24/7.
Evidence about North Korean capabilities is flimsy and debated. The truth is that only a handful of people in North Korea have any real idea of what went up in those tests, what came back down, and what was detonated during the five nuclear tests. Anyone saying they do not yet have a nuclear-capable ICBM is at most expressing an opinion. Those are saying the threat is almost certainly here now are, in my opinion, making the fewest assumptions and looking carefully at the actual data. No other nuclear proliferator has, at the same point in the development process, not overcome the obstacles listed.
The recent threat to land four HS-12 RV’s at unusually specific locations off the coast of Guam should be read not just as proof that they’re willing to use the weapons they have. And that they’re willing to start over-flying Japan again and to show that they can fly them to intermediate ranges with accuracy and a proximity close enough to watch the RV’s splash into Pacific. In pre-announcing the trajectory and time frame, they’re also taunting at least three different anti-ballistic missile systems along the flight path.
My lesser worry is that this kind of talk all but demands that the North Koreans continue testing their weapons until every sub-system currently questioned is shown to work. That would likely mean some unfortunate spot in the Pacific finding itself on the receiving end of an ICBM-delivered nuclear weapon. What else do they need to do to stop people like Donald Trump from thinking that “fire and fury like the world has never seen” isn’t an option against North Korea anymore? While whales are not officially part of the US alliance architecture, it would represent the first atmospheric nuclear test since 1980.
My greater worry is that brutish talk about kicking doors in either leads to a pre-emptive strike by the Trump administration or Pyongyang taking his words seriously and literally enough to believe such an attack is imminent. This potential catastrophe would unfold faster than any news cycle we’ve yet experienced in 2017. North Korea’s posture leans heavily on “use ‘em or lose ‘em,” meaning that they would likely launch a nuclear strike the moment they concluded that their regime or arsenal was in imminent danger of attack. We might well see videos of mushroom clouds of Guam, Iwakuni, or Okinawa before news about the cruise missile attack that sparked the response.
The Bush Administration took the US to war in 2003 with the “1% doctrine”, claiming that even a 1% chance that Iraq might nuke a US city through terrorists was too much for America to accept. The current saber rattling against North Korea is inexplicable if that logic still has any resonance. Were I to quantify it, I would estimate there is a 90% chance they would strike American bases in Asia with MRBM’s and IRBM’s if attacked and at least a 50% that a Hwasong-14 could reach the West Coast with a working nuke. To believe otherwise is simply an expression of faith: either in the innate superiority of US weapons (e.g., recon and ballistic missile defenses) or that North Korean missiles can’t possibly do what the telemetry data suggests. The threat drops to virtually 0% with a serious, believable commitment not to ‘knock down’ the North Korean door.