North Korea — and China — have us where they want us.
North Korea reached a milestone on the Fourth of July by launching its first ICBM, the “Hwasong-14.” Fired on a steep trajectory the missile flew for almost forty minutes before coming down about 800 miles from the launch pad. On a shallower trajectory, it could have reached Alaska.
The launch was accompanied, as usual, by a taunt from Kim Jong Un. This time he said the launch was a message to “the American bastards.”
Days before his inauguration, Mr. Trump wrote a tweet that said of North Korea’s ambition to develop an ICBM, “… it won’t happen.” Now it has.
The missile had some very important features. It was a two-stage missile, of which at least the first stage was liquid-fueled, meaning it took considerable time to fuel and, unlike solid-fueled missiles, had to be launched within a day or two after fueling.
The nosecone, in which a nuclear weapon could ride, is, according to a Washington Times report, very similar to a Chinese-supplied one Pakistan uses atop its nuclear-armed missiles. It may be that North Korea bought it from China or Pakistan or manufactured the nosecone itself. The missile’s engines closely resemble those of Russian-designed launchers, probably resulting from Russian scientists giving North Korea their designs and either Russian or Chinese engineers helping North Korea to develop a similar missile.
It is probable that the North Koreans haven’t yet devised a nuclear warhead capable of functioning after undergoing the enormous stresses of a missile launch and the tremendous heat generated during reentry into the atmosphere. But it’s only a matter of time, and not much time, until they do.
North Korea is under a total arms embargo by UN resolution. China would have violated the UN arms embargo by sending such missile nosecones to North Korea. There’s no reason to believe the Chinese haven’t and will continue to do so.
And they’ve done much more. China is almost certainly supplying the mobile missile launch systems such as those North Korea displayed in its huge April military parade.
On the day of the Hwasong-14 launch, the president launched his response on Twitter. He wrote, “North Korea has just launched another missile. Does this guy have anything better to do with his life? Hard to believe that South Korea and Japan will put up with this much longer. Perhaps China will put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all!”
As they say on Monday Night Football, “C’mon, man.” South Korea and Japan are as dependent on us for defense leadership as the deadbeats of NATO despite their enormous investment in defense. They will have to follow our lead, and when we don’t lead, they’ll remain in a state of political entropy. China isn’t going to put any “moves” on North Korea because North Korea may be doing exactly what China wants it to do.
China’s goal is not to avoid war: it is to keep us tangled up with North Korea while it expands across the South China Sea and elsewhere. And although China has enormous influence on North Korea, China may not have the power to disarm Kim of his nuclear weapons or missiles unless it decides to remove Kim and substitute a more pliable puppet.
Yes, China doesn’t want an influx of North Korean refugees that might result from toppling Kim’s regime. But that concern pales in comparison to China’s fear of a unified, democratic, and U.S.-aligned Korea on its border. In short, relying on China to restrain or topple the Kim regime is foolhardy.
Mr. Trump said he was considering “some pretty severe things” in response to the North Korean missile test and said he’d confront the threat “very strongly.”
The Trump administration said that it would be ready to use force to counter the growing threat of a North Korean attack. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that “[North Korea’s] actions are quickly closing off the possibility of a diplomatic solution,” and that America has “considerable military forces. We will use them if we must. But we prefer not to have to go in that direction.” That is an understatement.
In May, Defense Secretary Mattis told Congress that another Korean War would be “catastrophic.” He said, “It will be a war more serious in terms of human suffering than anything we have seen since 1953.”
Mattis is clearly right, which means that unless we are ready to strike North Korea and risk that war, our options are essentially nil. (After the launch, Mattis said that it didn’t bring us closer to war.)
By now it must be clear to all who aren’t willfully blind that North Korea cannot be disarmed peacefully. Further sanctions on North Korea won’t have any effect on the threat it poses. Sanctions on Chinese banks and businesses that trade with North Korea will have only marginal effects.
Our options come down to this: either we live with the threat or we remove the Kim regime while destroying its ability to attack us. Either option is equally terrible.
To live with the threat of nuclear attack — including an electromagnetic pulse attack that could result in millions of American deaths — is untenable. Even if the Kim regime isn’t insane enough to attack today, it may — as enemies have in the past — someday decide to do so. North Korea must, at some level, understand that an attack would be suicidal, but deterrence fails if belligerence and paranoia, as exhibited daily by the Kim regime, overwhelm common sense.
To begin a war ourselves, risking the lives of tens of thousands of Americans in South Korea and Japan as well as millions of South Korean and Japanese lives, could only result in extremis. If we concluded that the North Koreans were about to attack us or either of our two allies easily in range of their missiles, we would have to preempt such an attack.
But that conclusion could only be reached on the basis of precise intelligence information which we, at this point, cannot obtain.
In short, China and North Korea have us pretty much where they want us. We’re as stuck as a bug on flypaper.
If we are wise enough to recognize the strategic blockade we’re trapped in, we can devise ways to break out of it.
We have to reduce the threat immediately to buy time to determine and devise a longer-term solution. That can be done if we undertake several tasks at the same time: enhancement of missile defenses, improved intelligence gathering, and heightened military readiness.
We have a small number of long-range anti-missile missiles in California and Alaska. In descending capability and range, there are systems aboard Navy ships (the Standard-3 missile and targeting radars), the Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense system (“THAAD”) in Japan (and some in South Korea) and Patriot systems in those nations and elsewhere. All of them need to be increased rapidly in number and capability.
Improving intelligence capability means increasing (from near zero) real spies on the ground as well as the capabilities of spy satellites. But that has to be done in the context of draining the intelligence swamp.
The intelligence community is an Augean stable in desperate need of reform. I’ve been writing for more than a decade of this need.
The intelligence agencies suffer from three terrible disabilities. First, the inability to penetrate the governments of our principal enemies — Iran and North Korea among them — by our human intelligence gatherers: real, live, on-the-ground spies. Second, the politicization of intelligence gathering, analyzing, and reporting during the Obama administration. Third, the fear of error driven by the enormous errors of the past.
The CIA is gun-shy because of its ghastly mistakes in the recent past. It didn’t warn against the 9/11 attacks, and before we invaded Iraq, CIA Director George Tenet told President Bush that the case against Saddam’s WMD was a “slam dunk.” Its leaders and analysts haven’t been able to deal with this problem since at least 1961, when the CIA was surprised by the construction of the Berlin Wall. (They were equally surprised by its fall in 1989.)
The CIA, along with the rest of the intelligence community, was — thoroughly and damagingly — politicized in the Obama years. We must remember the 2015 reports of the revolt of intelligence analysts who were forced to change their findings to suit Mr. Obama’s political positions. They were not alone, as is proven by the continuous, dangerous and damaging leaks we’ve seen since January. Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal wrote a must-read piece on that a few days ago.
Spy satellites and NSA’s interception of communications are very effective but can’t determine foreign governments’ intentions. The lack of spies penetrating hostile governments is devastating to our ability to predict events such as the North Korean missile launch as well as to gauge Iran’s progress toward nuclear weapons at all effectively.
Military readiness is, as I have written many times, is an enormous problem. If a war begins on the Korean Peninsula, the Chinese and North Koreans know that our military’s capabilities, while enormous, can’t be sustained for more than a few weeks. If the North Koreans can bury or otherwise conceal from our intelligence agencies sufficient assets to wait us out, they may be able to sustain heavy damage and still have sufficient capability to win a longer war.
We have to restore readiness. There is no choice left.
We can also enhance and let fly our cyber attack capabilities to the extent they haven’t already been deployed. Whatever we are doing, we need to do more in attacking North Korea’s — and China’s — ability to function in the cyber realm. That means disabling, not just penetrating, their cyber assets as much as we can. It means disabling North Korea’s ability to launch missiles and test and launch nuclear weapons.
If we do these things, we can begin to break their strategic blockade. But none of these things can be done without money, a lot of it. Congress and the president will have to commit to these things and actually get them done. A Congress that can’t do anything about Obamacare, tax reform, or pretty much anything else important won’t appropriate the money for these tasks. A president who can’t get more respect than Rodney Dangerfield isn’t going to be able to get Congress to do these things.