North Korea today successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. The launch marks a breakthrough of sorts for the regime. The missile flew higher and remained in the air longer than previous attempts — long enough to reach Alaska, experts believe.
The New York Times explains:
Their missile traveled only about 580 miles, by itself no great achievement. But it got there by taking a 1,700-mile trip into space and re-entering the atmosphere, a flight that lasted 37 minutes by the calculation of the United States Pacific Command (and a few minutes longer according to the North Koreans).
Flatten that out, and you have a missile that could reach Alaska, but not Los Angeles. That bolsters the assessment of the director of the Missile Defense Agency, Vice Adm. James D. Syring, who told a congressional hearing last month that the United States “must assume that North Korea can reach us with a ballistic missile.”
The Times notes that it may be a few years before the North Koreans can fit a nuclear warhead onto its increasingly powerful missiles. It may be a bit longer before missiles fitted with a nuclear warhead can reach Los Angeles. But time is running out.
What are President Trump’s options at this point? The good ones have vanished as three successive presidents failed to face up to the North Korean problem.
For example, 11 years ago former Defense Secretary William Perry and future Defense Secretary Ashton Carter argued in favor of immediately making clear our intention to strike and destroy North Korea missiles on the launch pad. Now, says Perry, North Korea has built too many missiles, of too many varieties, to make the benefits of a strike like that worth the risk. It has test-flown a new generation of solid-fuel missiles, which can be easily hidden in mountain caves and rolled out for quick launch.
In addition, North Korez possesses enough artillery along the northern edge of the Demilitarized Zone to take out Seoul, a city of approximately 10 million people. Although a first strike against North Korea should not be ruled out completely, it looks like a bad option.
Trump hoped that, through the intervention of China, North Korea could be induced to stop testing missiles — in effect, to freeze its program — and maybe even to dial it back. It was reasonable of Trump to try this approach, using as leverage the threat of declaring China a currency manipulator and so forth. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, it looks like this approach will not work. In a recent tweet, Trump acknowledged as much.
What to do now? The most important thing is to accelerate the development of a missile defense system that can shoot down North Korean missiles and of cyberprograms that can sabotage missile launches.
As weird as Kim Jong Un is, he’s unlikely to launch a missile attack against the U.S. He’s even less likely to do so if he believes we can shoot his missiles down. Thus, an effective missile defense system would serve two purposes: deterrence and actual protection.
We should couple a redoubling of our missile defense efforts with a strengthening of sanctions. The idea is to increase the likelihood of regime change by making life in North Korea as unbearable as possible. But we should recognize that regime change of the kind that would lead to a good outcome on the nuclear front is a long shot in the coming years.
Here’s what I think we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t negotiate, as South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, is proposing.
The goal of the negotiations would be a deal whereby North Korea would freeze its nuclear and missile tests in return for an American agreement to limit or suspend military exercises with South Korea. China has long urged this approach, and Russia is now on board with it.
Chinese and Russian enthusiasm may be enough to show the undesirability of this deal. If more is required, it can also be noted that (1) past deals with North Korea have fallen apart, (2) North Korea may well be far enough down the road to a nuclear strike capability that a freeze would be of little benefit, and (3) U.S.-South Korea military exercises are in our interest quite apart from the threat posed by North Korea. If that state didn’t exist, I think we would still want to engage in such exercises because of the Chinese threat.
The bottom line is that, President Trump’s early bluster notwithstanding, we are probably going to have to live with the possibility of a North Korean nuclear attack. Why? Because our responses as North Korea developed its nuclear weapons capability were hopelessly naive.
Just as they have been when it comes to Iran.