North Korea’s missile insuranceNorth Korea’ latest intercontinental ballistic missile test on Friday has intensified debate on just how close they are to having an operational ICBM. Indeed, the missile test comes on the heels of alarmist reports that at least one U.S. intelligence agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), assesses that Pyongyang will have a “reliable” ICBM that can reach the U.S. mainland by next year. Most analysts had a longer timetable, roughly three to four years.
But wait. Before you build your fallout shelter, remember there are 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies and there is often a spectrum of assessments on this type of intelligence question. That is why the National Intelligence Council does “national intelligence estimates” to find a consensus of view among the various agencies.
What level of confidence does the DIA have in its judgment? There is cause for skepticism of its assessment. For starters, that North Korea’s recent Hwasong-14 two-stage missile had a bigger engine and went further is not ample evidence that Pyongyang’s whole program has advanced as well. They don’t know if the re-entry vehicle on either the July 4 test or the most recent one was successful or burned up.
And what about accuracy? It took the United States, Russia and China much longer to obtain reliable ICBM forces from a similar status to what North Korea’s missile program is now. Adding a third stage to a true ICBM and having it travel the additional 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) to hit Washington or New York creates additional heating, physical stress and other complications.
Perhaps such technical challenges explain why Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Pyongyang’s recent test lacked “the capacity to strike the United States with any degree of accuracy or reasonable confidence of success.”
So now what? First, while they are eventually likely to attain ICBM capability, there is a window during which we can disrupt and inhibit their missile and nuclear programs. There is a difficult supply chain of components needed for Kim’s missiles and nukes. As we tighten sanctions and cut their access to the international financial system, we can curb Pyongyang’s overseas procurement networks in places like China and Malaysia. This should be the focus of the United States, South Korea and their partners.
Though you might not know it from the irresponsible rhetoric recently uttered by Trump officials, the United States’ options are limited. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said last week at an Aspen Institute meeting that “it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability.” And he suggested a timeline, saying that the administration is giving diplomacy “a few more months.”
No less reckless were remarks by Mike Pompeo, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. As reported in the press, he said at the Aspen forum that the administration is developing “a range of options” and that he was “hopeful” the United States could “find a way to separate that regime from” its nuclear weapons. This implies regime change, directly contradicting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s pledge to the contrary.
But in any case, loose talk of pre-emptive strikes and regime change are not exactly incentives for Kim Jong-un to surrender his nukes. Precisely the opposite. It feeds his notion of the United States as a grave and imminent threat and reinforces his belief that an ICBM is his best insurance against a U.S. attack.
While all options should be on the table, only if the United States has intelligence that a North Korean attack is imminent does a pre-emptive strike make sense. Otherwise, a pre-emptive strike is not an option — unless you are prepared to risk the lives of 300,000 to 400,000 people in the greater Seoul area (including tens of thousands of Americans). First, it is highly unlikely that we could destroy their weapons of mass destruction. We don’t know exactly in what tunnels and mountains they hide their missiles, exactly how many nukes they have or where they are, or how many highly enriched uranium facilities they have or where they are. So would we risk escalation to nuclear war and catastrophic damage for a strike that, if we were lucky, might get 15 percent of their WMDs?
Geographic proximity has always been the problem in dealing with North Korea. Even without an ICBM, they have some 10,000 artillery tubes deployed across the DMZ, in range of Seoul, and have deployed more than 150 Rodong missiles that can hit U.S. military bases in South Korea and Japan.
Despite the hyperbole of “the sky is falling,” as horrible as it would be, the world does not end if North Korea gets a certain military capability. I recall a similar debate in 1964, when many feared that a crazy communist named Mao Zedong was about to get a nuclear weapon and we could not allow that to happen.
Deterrence has worked since 1953. The one redeeming feature of North Korea is that the regime is not suicidal — it is dedicated to survival. We now have a state of mutual deterrence. If Pyongyang gets an ICBM, it complicates the United States’ strategic calculus.
But it is not obvious that deterrence will not continue to work. This is not mutual assured destruction. They cannot destroy the United States, only cause a lot of damage and trigger a swift and overwhelming response that would mean suicide for the regime and North Korea. Any WMD use by North Korea would be their assured destruction, and they know it.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the Hill online.
*The author is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior advisor to the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 1989 to 1993, counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State’s policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008, and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012.
Robert A. Manning