The geopolitical drama involving North Korea and the United States has been playing out on two levels since the advent of the Trump administration. On one level we have the President unleashing what has become a familiar stream of bombast, threats, and invective — to which Pyongyang has replied in kind. North Korea’s effort to build an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear weapon on U.S. soil “won’t happen.” In fact, it has happened. If North Korea “threatens” the United States it will be met with “fire and fury unlike anything the world has ever seen.” North Korean threats have continued unabated. At the same time, this President, who has unlimited faith in his own powers of persuasion, has met with China’s President Xi on several occasions and has expressed confidence in Beijing’s ability and determination to “solve” the North Korean problem. To date, China has done nothing more than a few largely cosmetic gestures designed to mollify the White House.
None of this should obscure the fact that the North Korean threat is real. It contains the potential to ignite a nuclear war — most probably through a sequence of miscalculations but with absolutely catastrophic consequences nonetheless. That prospect has led serious people in the Department of Defense and the Congress to try to find an effective counter to North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile capabilities.
Those capabilities have reached an ominous threshold. By best estimates, North Korea now has an arsenal of 10 to 20 nuclear weapons. In an all-out effort, it has developed and tested ICBMs capable of reaching Alaska — and quite likely the continental United States. North Korean claims that these missiles can now carry a nuclear warhead are believed to be credible. As a senior Pentagon official put it, we have to assume that North Korea can deliver a nuclear weapon on Los Angeles or Chicago.
Assessments of North Korea’s capabilities are relatively straightforward. Assessing Pyongyang’s strategy and intent involves considerable uncertainty. There have been a variety of theories as to what is motivating North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un. Some have speculated that this is all about Kim’s hunger for international status and respect — and perhaps a genuine fear that the United States intends to attack North Korea. If that were the case, it is possible to imagine negotiations that would persuade Pyongyang to give up its weapons in return for a variety of security assurances plus economic assistance. However, statements by a senior North Korean diplomat who recently defected to South Korea paint a different and more dangerous picture. Claiming to have authoritative knowledge, the diplomat states that Kim sees his ability to threaten the United States as a way of forcing Washington to abandon its support for South Korea, which in turn will allow Kim to use the threat of nuclear annihilation to force the surrender of South Korea and put the entire Korean peninsula under his control. If this reading is correct — and it probably is — then there is no way Kim will be persuaded to negotiate away his nuclear and missile arsenal. This leaves the United States with an overriding imperative: find ways to neutralize, if not eliminate, the North Korean threat.
One option, repeatedly invoked by the President and his national security advisor, is a pre-emptive military attack designed to destroy North Korea’s arsenal. For reasons previously detailed in this space, such threats are not credible. A pre-emptive strike would almost certainly ignite a new Korean War that would, at a minimum, involve the use of nuclear weapons on the peninsula. A second major option involves stepped-up sanctions and the threat of massive retaliation in the case of a North Korean attack, i.e. Cold War-style deterrence. But that does not neutralize the threat; it is a strategy for living with it.
Another, more promising, option is taking shape. The Pentagon, with congressional support, has launched a crash program to develop new and innovative means of destroying North Korean missiles before they can reach their targets. Current U.S. “missile defense” capabilities are clearly inadequate and consist mainly of: (1) Aegis destroyers in the seas of Japan and Korea that can shoot down short/medium-range missiles but not ICBM’s and (2) anti-ICBM batteries in Alaska that no one (except apparently the President) believes are anything close to 100 percent reliable. This has led to an urgent commitment of billions of dollars into new approaches to missile defense. The most promising involve weapons designed to attack North Korean ICBMs immediately after launch when they are slow moving and highly vulnerable. Proposed methods include using heat-seeking missiles mounted on fighter aircraft — or better on long-dwell drones — that would be on constant patrol along the borders of North Korean airspace. One veteran defense scientist described the drone/missile concept as a “game changer.” The drones and the missiles already exist. Modifying them for this particular mission could be completed in a year or less. This would produce a 24-hour/365-day intimidating presence of U.S. drones poised to destroy even a large number of simultaneously launched North Korean ICBMs. An even more effective and sophisticated capability using lasers instead of missiles is feasible within a few years. Add to this the (uncertain) potential for cyber attacks on North Korean command and control systems and we have the real prospect that Kim’s weapons of strategic blackmail can be rendered ineffective — without risking a war, without depending on China, and at a relatively modest cost.
This may be one silver bullet that is real.