On the Brink
Pyongyang reached a dreaded milestone in its nuclear weapon capabilities on Tuesday, firing a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – the Hwasong-15 – which flew 2,800 miles into space and demonstrated the ability to reach any part of the American homeland. The entire United States is now within range of Pyongyang. Or as Defense Secretary Mattis clarified, they can reach “everywhere in the world basically.”
The brinksmanship strategy and nuclear weapon development of North Korea has progressed in defiance of international pressure. As is so often the case with turbulent regimes, treaties and appeasement have had little-to-no effect.
Totalitarian regimes pay careful attention to rhetoric, propaganda, and appearances. After Tuesday’s successful launch, for example, Kim Jong-un declared on state-run television, “we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.”
“We have never sought war with North Korea, and still today we do not seek it. If war comes, make no mistake, the North Korean regime will be utterly destroyed.”
“We now turn to President Xi to also take that stand. We believe he has an opportunity to do the right thing for the benefit of all countries. China must show leadership and follow through. China can do this on its own, or we can take the oil situation into our own hands.”
U.S. and Chinese generals also engaged in security talks on Wednesday at the National Defense University in Washington – a sign that China is more willing to explore how the two world powers can mitigate the growing tension on the Korean peninsula. Trump has drawn a hardline that the U.S. will not accept North Korea possessing the capability to strike the mainland, and he’s putting pressure on China to step up to the plate.
But how did we arrive here?
The threat of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) proves to be a unique foreign policy predicament due to the catastrophic consequences of a single, successful attack. In the midst of the Cold War in 1970, for example, the international community birthed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which now includes the agreement of 191 states.
It is often forgotten that in 1994, President Clinton was prepared to engage in war over intelligence that North Korea had built nuclear warheads. The conflict was narrowly averted when Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang to negotiate a non-binding political commitment (which needed no approval from the U.S. Senate) known as the Agreed Framework.
The thrust of the agreement was that North Korea would freeze their nuclear reactors, cooperate with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, and remain in the NPT. The United States in turn would provide two light-water nuclear reactors, supply 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually to assist with their heating and electricity production, and ensure Pyongyang against the threat of nuclear weapons by the U.S.
Tensions rose over the years due to the pesky nature of the Pyongyang regime, and early in George W. Bush’s administration, it labeled North Korea among its “Axis of Evil.” CIA reports at the time suggested that Pyongyang was secretly accelerating its efforts to enrich uranium, and in reaction, the Bush administration cut off fuel oil shipments in 2002. North Korea quickly withdrew from the agreement and intensified their brazen defiance of the international community.
Later, in 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT after 18 years of participation, and restarted their nuclear reactor. Efforts were made to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear enrichment program in Six-Party Talks from 2003-07, but they essentially had no effect. North Korea officially discontinued Six-Party Talks in 2009.
As recently as 2013, the Obama administration faced the aggressive posturing of the new supreme leader, a 29-year-old Kim Jong-un (or as the Chinese have nicknamed him, “Kim Fatty the Third”), who at the time put the nation’s rockets into combat-ready status and posed in a picture that included a background map detailing a “U.S. mainland strike plan.”
Four years ago, Pyongyang didn’t have delivery systems capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. Obama’s approach of appeasement and strategic stability, however, focused on cutting defense funding, and canceling missile-defense programs before completion. It did nothing to curb North Korea’s continued ICBM development. Now, in 2017, the United States is vulnerable to ICBM attacks from shore to shore.
What a difference a few years can make.
Missile Defense Systems
Earlier this month, President Trump requested an additional $4 billion in the 2018 defense budget for the Missile Defense Agency. The capabilities of silo-based and sea-based interceptors are in a constant state of improvement. Radar detection is advancing, and the goal of shooting a bullet to impact another bullet already in flight is no easy task.
The test record for missile defense is admirable, but it’s not perfect. Now is not the time to neglect missile defense development, and $4 billion is chump change in the federal budget. To put it in perspective, it would take an ICBM 33 minutes to travel from Pyongyang to the United States mainland. What’s worse is that North Korea has used mobile launch sites – making it extremely difficult to preemptively strike a launch pad.
Critics of U.S. missile defense programs argue that systems aren’t perfect, and they underplay the potential value relative to budgetary spending. But if even one American city can be saved from a nuclear attack, the payoff is immeasurable. We can’t accept the alternative.
“In testing, we learn more from failures than successes. We stress the system and push it to its limits. Failures allow us to identify weaknesses in the system and fix them. It's a process that has produced ever more reliable defenses.”
Trump vs Kim Jong-un
One is left to wonder whether Washington can utilize a Cold War strategy against North Korea. Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) worked with the Soviet Union and the United States because both states understood the existential conflict of nuclear war, and most importantly, they were both rational actors on the international stage. The fear in this case is that Kim Jong-un’s young age, relative inexperience, and proclivity for hot-headedness could undermine the potential stability of a national security policy like MAD.
By that same measure, Americans will watch in anticipatory anxiety as the Trump administration handles its first real foreign policy conflict. News hit on Thursday that Rex Tillerson is out at the State Department (more dovish), supposedly to be replaced by Mike Pompeo, the current Director of the CIA (more hawkish). The coming months will reveal a lot. There’s no doubt that the Trump administration has inherited a tricky situation that lends itself to external critics and frustrations from within to implement the proper plan – but the margin for error is critical.
When it comes to WMDs, we can’t afford a mistake.