BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
As has been reported at The Weichert Report, the North Korean nuclear program has proceeded along fairly predictable lines. By 2006, the North was testing rudimentary nuclear weapons. In 2013, the Defense Intelligence Agency was the only American intelligence agency that was accurately asserting that the North had mastered miniaturization. This is an important step for any nuclear weapons program, because it means that nuclear warheads can be made smaller and fitted atop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Today, the North is poised to complete their nuclear weapons development in the next 18 months. Success on this level will give the North unprecedented strategic leverage over the United States–the kind of leverage that could fundamentally alter America’s strategic position in northern Asia.
The next major hurdle for the North Korean nuclear weapons program is building a reliable ICBM. It’s easy to build a rocket and throw something up into space. The real questions are: can you not only throw something up into space, but can you also bring it back down over the cities of your rivals, and can you do it consistently? This is a far more difficult task.
As far back as 2009, the North Koreans were lobbing missiles into space, claiming that they were peaceful satellite launches for the North Korean space agency. In fact, they were test runs for perfecting their ICBM technology. Remember, a space program is dual-use in nature. What one does in space for purportedly peaceful purposes can be converted into supporting a military nuclear program. There are slight differences between these two things that make any satellite launch an excellent test for a nuclear weapons launch also. In 2014, the North Koreans put an actual satellite into orbit. Although, it does not behave as an ordinary civilian satellite, yet it does orbit the Earth. As I’ve noted in my lectures on military space policy, the North Koreans might have been placing electromagnetic pulse weapons in orbit (though that is merely speculation).
Anyway, as the threat grew over the years, the United States did little to respond to the threat. The North has been consistent in their intentions to develop a full nuclear weapons capability whereas the West has been listless about responding to this growing threat. North Korea has made its intentions consistently clear: it will not rest until it has a working and reliable nuclear arsenal–the kind of arsenal that can seriously threaten not only the South Koreans and Japanese, but the United States as well. Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young, rogue leader, likely believes that having the ability to truly threaten the United States would force the Americans to stand down in any given crisis, rather than risking one of their major cities.
Now that the North Koreans cleared the other major hurdles for a nuclear program, the last thing they really have to overcome is the aforementioned ICBM capability. Previously, The Weichert Report concurred with the DIA’s assessment that the North was upwards of 18 months away from having such an ICBM capability. Once this threshold is breached, the entire metric for American policy in the region changes.
President Donald Trump is not an interventionist. It is likely that Kim Jong-un hopes that, once he has a reliable ICBM that can threaten the continental United States, President Trump will come to the negotiating table, and negotiate America’s position away in the region. This is a mistaken belief. But, it is also unlikely that Trump will actually engage in a military strike preemptively as former President George W. Bush did in Iraq in 2003. At this juncture, the United States military is strained and is truly at its breaking point. Various military leaders from around the world have commented on the disproportionately high cost that a military campaign would incur on the West. Any American victory in North Korea would be a pyrrhic one. So, it is likely that the Trump Administration will continue signaling resolve, while not actually committing to military action until the North actually does have reliable nuclear capabilities.
The recent North Korean ICBM did go higher than previous tests. This means that the North can now technically threaten anywhere in the world. However, again, the question remains unanswered as to whether or not North Korean ICBMs can have a controlled reentry from space that can effectively destroy its intended target. Throwing a missile high up is one thing; having the ability to launch a nuclear warhead that can land anywhere at any time, on the whims of a tinpot dictator, such as Kim Jong-un, is another thing entirely.
There is little doubt that the North Koreans furthered their knowledge of ICBM technology. The fact that they launched at 3 a.m. (previous launches occurred during the day) indicates that North Korea may have made serious strides in developing their ICBM technology, and wanted to obstruct American intelligence from getting an accurate reading on it. However, these actions are consistent with the general timeline that both I and the DIA have laid out for the progression of the North Korean ICBM development. Don’t tell this to the American media: you’d think that the sequel to the Cuban Missile Crisis just happened. This isn’t real news. This is predictable. Relax (for now).
The bigger question is: what will the Trump Administration do? Some things we can infer is that, for almost two whole months, Kim Jong-un went quiet. After having tortured the world over the summer with endless missile tests, he inexplicably ceased his missile launches. This happened to roughly coincide with President Trump’s Asia trip. In the run-up to that trip, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was part of an advance team that went through the region to reassure our allies and to deter our foes (like North Korea). When Trump arrived, North Korea was relatively well-behaved. In fact, during the trip, it was Trump who was seen as antagonizing the North Koreans with his rhetoric. Clearly, Kim Jong-un is worried about President Trump’s intentions–and Trump’s rhetoric is adding a necessary fog of uncertainty, which might be the only thing deterring North Korea’s aggression. But, rhetoric will only deter for so long. We’re in a place where the harsher tone from the United States is galvanizing American allies whilst also catalyzing North Korea to double-down on their nuclear weapons program.
The world is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.
Right now, the United States can ill-afford a war on the Korean peninsula. The South Koreans cannot afford it either. Neither the Japanese nor Chinese want a conflict there. So, the United States cannot simply wade into a conflict there. We are not ready. Further, we will have to contend with extreme countervailing forces. We have as little as 6 months before North Korea can threaten the United States directly with nuclear weapons. Whether they actually launch or not is irrelevant, if the North has reliable ICBMs, the mere threat of an attack would likely force the United States to think twice about sacrificing Los Angeles for Seoul or Tokyo–this is especially true if either China and/or Russia come to North Korea’s aid.
The only thing that America can do is to take a major leap forward. Sending more Americans to South Korea; deploying more warships; threatening to retaliate with nuclear arms, should North Korea do anything to harm the United States is absurd, given current political, economic, and military limitations. These are ancient non-solutions to a serious modern problem. The only hope the United States has is to place space-based missile defensive systems in orbit. We have the technology, we just need the infusion of cash and political leadership to get there. The mere presence of even a rudimentary system would put all of America’s adversaries on guard.
The North will not launch a nuclear strike at the United States until it has reliable ICBM capabilities. That day is visible on the horizon, but it is still on the horizon. The Trump Administration must embark on a Manhattan-like Project to place a true defense against nuclear arms in orbit. Remember, the mere threat of a space-based missile defense system sent the Soviet Union over-the-edge in the 1980s. Something similar could happen to North Korea–especially in light of the fact that the technology today is far more sophisticated than it was in 1983, when former President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).
There are no more short-term solutions for overcoming North Korea’s nuclear threat. We cannot accept a nuclearized North Korea. Our allies are indifferent because they not only fear a nuclear North Korea, but they also fear the fallout from what they perceive as an American overreaction. The Chinese are implicitly supporting North Korea–as are the Russians–and there are no more easy answers on the table. The only thing that can be done is to give America a proverbial ace up its sleeve; without it, we will be in a crushing war in North Korea that will likely break the American economy; destroy our fighting forces; and ratchet tensions between the U.S., China, and Russia to untenable levels. America must develop and deploy a space-based missile defense system with due haste. Of course, the deployment of a space-based missile defense system would also intensify tensions with the Russians and Chinese, but the United States retains significant advantages in space. So, the Chinese and Russians would have difficulty in meeting the challenge.
In the end, this is the only solution. Let’s hope someone in Washington is listening. Otherwise, we’ll be at war either on the Korean peninsula in 18 months, or we’ll be kicked out of the Asia-Pacific over the next decade, as America’s strategic position erodes. In either event, these are unacceptable scenarios.