China and North Korea's Nukes

China and North Korea's Nukes
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
China and North Korea's Nukes
AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon
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On April 4, 2017, General John Hyten, the Commander of the United States Strategic Command, confirmed at least four key North Korean threat developments.

First, in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Hyten said the North Koreans “already have the capability to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile” that can “range” the continental United States.

Second, General Hyten explained that North Korea might have the capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads as he assumes any missile launch could be armed with a nuclear warhead aimed at the United States.

Third, General Hyten warned that the February 11 North Korean missile launches are now utilizing solid rocket fuel, enabling their missiles to be launched with little notice, avoiding the lengthy fueling process of liquid fueled missiles.

Fourth, General Hyten noted the North Korean launch site was new, further underscoring that monitoring North Korea ballistic missile launches is becoming increasingly difficult.

Fifth, and this is the only “good news,” the General concluded it is unclear whether at this time the North Korean government can effectively “mate” a nuclear warhead with a ballistic missile.

However, as General Hyten also explained, that uncertainty gives him limited flexibility. He notes that every time the North Korean’s launch a ballistic missile, he has to ready forces to prevent a potentially nuclear-armed ballistic missile from reaching the continental United States.

As a recent high-ranking North Korean defector told us, the leadership in Pyongyang is reckless enough to use nuclear weapons against the U.S., or East Asian allies Japan and the Republic of Korea (ROK).

These threats are forcing many in Congress and leaders in the Trump administration to seek both enhanced missile and better stand-off strike capabilities. The latter requires us to buy more new, and enhance existing, tactical and strategic long range strike aircraft to deter North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.

In that context, a failure to provide our armed forces with anything less than a full-up defense bill is unconscionable. A barebones continuing resolution under which we are not operating will lose the United States Air Force alone in the next five months nearly $3 billion in readiness and modernization funding. In the face of growing threats, slowing down defense upgrades makes as much sense as stopping shipbuilding after Pearl Harbor.

Will the United States act in time to better defend itself from North Korea?

On missile defense, history is instructive. In 1995, Congress passed an amendment to the defense bill 218-212 asserting that national missile defense was not important. “Rogue state” threats were deemed sufficiently far into the future as not to require any “missile defense” action at the time.

But given it would probably take many years—a decade or more—to test and build effective missile defenses, waiting until an errant North Korean missile lands in the East River adjacent to the Manhattan waterfront makes little sense.

While the United States passed the “National Missile Defense Act” in 1999 calling for deploying a national missile defense, we have at this time only 34 interceptors in Alaska and California, but growing to 44 by the end of the year.

However, again as General Hyten explained to the Senate, we do not have a highly effective ability to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles, especially during boost phase when the missile is moving slowly, and before its warheads are released. A capability very difficult to achieve, but much needed.

The missile defense review currently being undertaken by the Trump administration, due this summer will hopefully allocate new funding for directed energy, boost phase defense and other missile defense initiatives.

In the meantime, adding to our deterrent capability with strike aircraft and currently available missile defenses is imperative.

The national missile defense interceptors we do have deployed have worked in tests roughly 45% of the time, but while they are a very important capability, the defense they offer is limited even as threats increase.  

The United States is also deploying the regional or theater missile defense system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) in the Republic of Korea. The systems when tested work 90% of the time, but cannot defend against potential Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

So unlike 1995, we are not facing a hypothetical missile threat from North Korea. North Korea now has multiple missiles capable of both “ranging” our allies Japan and the ROK, as well as the United States. They also have a small arsenal of nuclear warheads, tested six times, just steps away from being mounted on an ICBM.  Capabilities confirmed by America’s most senior military commanders.

What then are our options now?

The new Secretary of State has rejected the previous policy of “strategic patience,” and is seeking to finally secure genuine Chinese assistance in stopping and the eliminating the North Korean threat.

Former UN ambassador John Bolton has argued that only with the unification of the Korean peninsula and the end of the regime in Pyongyang can this North Korean threat be ended.

General Jack Keane, former Vice Chief of the U.S. Army, has also recently argued that the use of military force to take out the North Korean launch facilities is now justified.

No one should minimize the dangers associated with the use of military force to deal with the North Korean nuclear capability. However, if anything needs to be recognized it is the deadly serious nature of the North Korean threat—no longer is it hypothetical.

In light of that, it is understandable the Secretary of State has said all our options are on the table.

It certainly makes sense to leverage U.S. military power in dealing with North Korea, especially if we are serious about using it. As Henry Kissinger argued many years ago, diplomacy without the threat of force is just prayer.  

Beyond building more effective missile defenses as well as enhancing the U.S. strike capability with the F-35 and B-21, both to deter and defend against North Korea attacks, the role of diplomacy certainly must be on the table as well.

Here, however, the United States runs into Chinese unwillingness to appropriately address the North Korean threat. It is true China recently announced it would limit coal imports from North Korea, a seemingly helpful act, but previous sanctions have proven to be a deception, whereas China increased trade.

Why has China been of so little help with North Korea? We hold a curious assumption that meager Chinese sanctions will force North Korea into compliance with numerous United Nations’ resolutions regarding their nuclear and ballistic missile programs and numerous other violations. Calls for increased sanctions by China are routinely disregarded.

Why is this ?

One reason is that China views North Korea’s nuclear program as a means to split the U.S.-ROK alliance, and ultimately remove the U.S. from the peninsula.

CSIS expert Joe Bosco says, some in China’s leadership still see a nuclear-armed North Korea as still a useful part of its overall security strategy to push the United States out of East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Now it is true that the ROK might cement U.S. bilateral military cooperation, especially with the deployment of the American made theater high altitude missile defense (THAAD) system. China will have then miscalculated, but it may not have reached that point yet.

Here the administration has to lay its cards on the table. China must give up its reckless idea that North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missiles can help achieve China’s hegemonic regional goals. In fact, the administration should underscore it has the opposite effect, as the Republic of Korea, Japan, and the United States enhance their conventional strike airpower capability in the region, push for more missile defenses, and potentially an across the board nuclear deterrent modernization effort.

Furthermore, North Korean “. . . KMS-3 and KMS-4 satellites orbiting over the U.S. If nuclear-armed, these satellites could make an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that would blackout North America and kill millions,” according to former CIA Director James Woolsey. That would put us out of the business of defending our allies, anywhere. It would also effectively crash the Chinese economy as well.  

This threat will not be dealt with through appeasement or “strategic patience” as we are out of time.

And we can no longer let China off the diplomatic hook, and accept its protestations of innocence on North Korean nuclear weapons or its further insistence it has no leverage with the North. After all, Pyongyang relies upon China for close to 80-90% of its trade and energy and food security.

We know previous serious economic and banking sanctions worked to get the North to the negotiating table in 2007, but then the sanctions were inexplicably dropped. It is time to ramp them back up, albeit with the understanding the North’s banking capability is more diverse. 

The new security framework recently laid out by the Secretary of State is the right one.

Business, as usual, cannot be the preferred path.

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