Let’s be Careful about Calling the North Korean ICBM a ‘Game Changer’

north-korea-koreas-tensionsThis is a local re-post of an essay I just wrote for the National Interest on the most recent missile launch, marketed as an ICBM.

My concern is the increasing discussion of airstrikes and military options against the North. This is hugely risky, and every time we say things like ‘we have crossed a red-line’ or ‘this is a game changer,’ we get one step closer to a war. No, not airstrikes. A war. Because any air campaign against North Korea would be so long and violent, it would be indistinguishable from a war. So before you listen to cable news hawks all week telling you that we have to strike North Korea, consider all the likely costs including a possible Sino-US shooting war. Here is my tweet storm griping about all the loose, irresponsible language NK provocations unleash.

So no, I am not suddenly a dove on North Korea. I want sanctions, missile defense, and more discussion with China. And I know talks won’t work. But we need to keep a calmer, less alarmist rhetorical environment so that we don’t ignite something we won’t be able to control.

The essay follows the jump:

On July 4, doubtless to provoke the Americans on their Independence Day holiday, the North Koreans claimed to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The missile launch was a ‘lofted’ shot, meaning it was fired at an angle greater than 45 degrees. This allows it travel higher but a shorter distance across the earth’s surface. Although the missile splashed down in the Sea of Japan, we can back-calculate from its altitude to how far it might have traveled if fired at an ideal, 45-degree angle. At the moment, the estimates are three to four thousand miles. That puts most of Alaska within range and is on the cusp on Hawaii.

This is a step forward in range to be sure, but there is dispute over whether to term this an ICBM rather than an intermediate range or medium range ballistic missile (IRBM, MRBM). Ultimately though, the nomenclature is less relevant than the distance. The consensus is that this is now the longest range North Korean missile we have yet seen in operation. Greater Anchorage, the largest urban agglomeration in Alaska, encompasses approximately 400,000 people. This new launch appears to decisively move those people into range. This is the first time a new nuclear power has been able to strike a major American city since the Chinese developed ICBMs during the Cold War. For a topic as prone to hyberbole as North Korea, this is bound to be read as a ‘game changer’ by American audiences and drive the growing discussion about US air-strikes.

Not Quite a ‘Game Changer’ Actually, because We Knew This Was Coming

I have argued in these pages before against the alarmism that characterizes so much of the North Korea debate. It is worth re-iterating a few points before this week’s cable news punditry runs us over the edge toward airstrikes:

1. North Korea has been telling us for years that it wants a nuclear weapon and missiles. Today’s launch obviously worsens the situation but not in ways we did not foresee. We have had time to think about how to respond (even if we seem bereft of good ideas). Hence my resistance to the ‘game-changer’ and ‘Franken-missile’-style rhetoric that so often accompanies these North Korean mini-crises.

2. North Korea almost certainly does not intend to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. Even if we assume North Korea can strike the United States with such a weapon, it would be suicide to do so. And if there is one thing we have learned from the decades of decadence and gangsterism of North Korean ruling Kim family, it is that they like their luxuries. There is much debate about what precisely the Kims’ goals are (are they still really committed to unification?), but one obvious intention is to live up the good life. The Kims’s neronian habits are notorious – liquor, cars, women, yachts, palatial residences. This is the reason for the luxury good ban on the regime and why it refers to that ban as “extra-large crimes against humanity.” These are no spartan, committed cadres living in caves according to a strict ideology ready to die for their beliefs. So it is highly unlikely that the Kim elite would throw away their indulgences on a strike they know would bring devastating US retaliation.

3. This weapon, rather, is intended to deter US-led regime change efforts. The US has flirted for decades with attacking North Korea by air, most notably in 1994. The US has also attacked many rogue states – Panama, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya to name just a few. It is therefore predictably rational for Pyongyang to seek the ultimate guarantee against such an attack. The program is not some madman’s dream to blow-up the world, as both Presidents Trump and Duterte (of the Philippines) have suggested. If the Kims wanted that, they could have started a cataclysmic war years ago. The Kims likely also see the program as a hedge against Chinese domination. North Korea is economically dependent on China, but its nuclear program and general truculence with global norms signal that it will not become Beijing’s political satellite. In short, as long as the US (and China) stay out of North Korea’s internal affairs, nuclear use is highly unlikely.

4. ICBM Range is not enough. A missile that can fly far enough to strike Alaska is not enough. It must also be able to carry a warhead (1000-1500 pounds), survive re-entry through the atmosphere, and land on a pinpoint target. US cities may seem like large places from a terrestrial vantage point within them, but from five to ten thousand miles away, they are a small grid reference on a map. ‘Throw weight,’ the ability to ‘throw’ or launch a large weight (ie., a warhead) a far distance, can get a North Korean missile in the vicinity of North America. But there are still several further steps required, and there is little way for outsiders to verify that the North Koreans have reliably crossed those thresholds. Just because the North Koreans can say they can nuke a US city does not mean they can. Remember this outlandish map?

What to Do? Sanctions and China – as always

This week’s debate mirrors those following the death of Otto Warmbier and Kim Jong Nam (murdered in Kuala Lumpur with VX poison). Those incidents too sparked the sense that North Korea had crossed a red-line which required punishment. In Kim’s case, the use of a weapon of mass destruction in an airport signaled once again that the North Koreans ignore even the most basic international norms, while Warmbier’s death looked an awful lot like the murder of a hapless, innocent American citizen. Yet both of those incidents passed without any overt response, as likely will this one. Cyber operations are likely – indeed, it is widely assumed that the US has sought to hack North Korea for years to slow its nuclear and missile program – but an aggressive response is unlikely.

Bombing North Korea has always been a hugely risky option. George W. Bush’s administration was replete with hawks who wanted to find a way to punish North Korea kinetically but could not, and the Trump administration is re-learning that dilemma. This pushes the likely response back to what it always been – the much derided ‘strategic patience’: sealing off North Korea from the world through sanctions to slow its nuclear and missile programs, pushing China to help more in order to cut off illicit flows into North Korea, maintaining the deterrence and containment postures on the peninsula which have kept the peace for decades.

But at this point, these measure can probably only slow North Korea’s nuclear missilization. This means that some point – and it looks to be coming sooner rather than later given North Korea’s remarkable speed in weapons development – the US will confront a choice: to learn to adapt to North Korean nuclear deterrence, as it did Soviet/Russian and Chinese deterrence during the Cold War, or strike. Given how dangerous, if not irrational, the US public and media perceive North Korea to be, this will be a harder to choice than learning to live with cold war deterrence.

5 thoughts on “Let’s be Careful about Calling the North Korean ICBM a ‘Game Changer’

  1. The East Asia Foreign Affairs Crystal Ball (TM) says; 1. The “red line” continues to get moved backwards so as to prevent NK from actually crossing it, and forcing some sort of actual relevant response from the US. 2. China continues to overtly or covertly feed money into NK despite the sanctions against Chinese firms that are coming soon. 3. Said sanctions will stoke anti-Americanism amongst the lower-information Chinese masses. 4. NK will continue to develop (or probably rip-off/copy) ballistic and ICBM technology from wherever they are getting it now (Egypt? Libya? Syria? Pakistan? Iran?), and will eventually be able to place nuclear weapons on their ICBMs, thoroughly displeasing the US, who will again move the red line back a bit to avoid having to take actual action. 5. The NK peasant folk will accept their destiny of pauperization and starvation, assisted by thorough and complete sanctions, etc (will China feed them?). 6. NK elite will continue to dine on caviar, consort with prostitutes, pass out gold watches and new apartments to loyal party members (Thanks, China). 7. When the ripple effect of sanctions and starvation start to creep up in Pyongyang, and the elite start to get hungry, NK leadership may be forced to use their nuclear tipped ICBMs to directly extort food/money from whoever still pays attention to them, China will likely acquiesce to avoid US boots on the ground and at their border.

    The main question is, as the US can shoot down said ICBM not long after launch, and as NK has no actual viable missile defense system of it’s own, why does anyone really care that NK has an ICBM? It couldn’t and wouldn’t actually hit anything (I guess they haven’t copied a proper 80’s era guidance system yet). NK pushing the ICBM button would essentially result in them being vaporized by actual reliable, satellite guided US ICBMs, as mentioned in this article. The US and media sensationalism regarding NK ICBMs is blown way out of proportion.


  2. The ‘main question’ for me is how China’s economy will perform over the next 30 days and what affect this may have at the Party Congress coming in September. As I explain here http://wp.me/p1yj4U-1fD North Korea is a non-question without China’s support.

    I arrive independently at the same conclusion of ‘sooner or later a strike’… But my sense is dependency on China devalues North Korea as a target. The more likely approach will bring ripples to China’s economy yet again.


  3. Pingback: There will be No US Airstrike on N Korea; SK will Veto it | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  4. Pingback: The Wide Gap between South Korean and American Media Coverage of North Korea | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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