America between Scylla and Charybdis: Dealing with a Nuclear North Korea

by Matthew J. Harris

While the United States and its allies focus on building defenses, North Korea will continue to develop and deploy nuclear-armed, long-range ballistic missiles, thus changing the strategic objective from proliferation to deterrence. Consequently, Pyongyang will become a nuclear weapons state simply because it is the only option on the table and there is very little the United States can do.

Between a rock and a hard place.

(James Gillray/Wikimedia Commons)

The Japan Times reported on May 19, 2015 that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has ordered preparations for a satellite launch in October to mark the establishment of the country’s ruling party 70 years ago. According to the Japan Times, the United States, Japan, and South Korea suspect the launch will be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test. This test will provide Pyongyang another opportunity to perfect its long-range ballistic missile technology and strengthen its strategic weapons arsenal. A strengthened strategic weapons arsenal in the hands of a regime that only a few months ago threatened the United States with the “most disastrous final doom on its mainland” is a dangerous combination and serious threat to the American people.

Many analysts simply discount Pyongyang’s threats as rhetoric designed to maintain political control or as sheer exaggeration. However, the recent claims and conceivable progress of North Korean efforts to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and place onto an ICBM capable of hitting U.S. targets, makes these threats a cause for concern. Admiral Bill Gortney, commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said on April 7, 2015, that the United States “believes North Korea is capable of miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and putting it on its KN-08 ICBM.”  More troubling, Gortney stated that “[o]ur assessment is that they have the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland.”  In mid-April, General Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, reinforced Gortney’s assertion. “I believe they’ve had the time and capability to miniaturize,” Scapparotti  told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Statements by U.S. senior military leaders aside, it is assessed that the number of North Korean nuclear weapons continues to increase. According to an April 22, 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “China’s top nuclear experts have increased their estimates of North Korea’s nuclear weapons production well beyond most previous U.S. figures, suggesting Pyongyang can make enough warheads to threaten regional security for the [United States] and its allies.” The Chinese estimates showed that North Korea may have 20 warheads with enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by 2016. Despite these assessments, no one knows with certainty the nature of Pyongyang’s strategic weapons arsenal until ICBM tests are conducted. Such testing is needed to increase the reliability of miniaturized nuclear warheads affixed to ICBMs.

Pyongyang’s most recent space launch successfully put a small satellite in orbit with an Unha-3 space launch vehicle.  The December 2012 launch took place at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in northwestern North Korea.  A program of the U.S-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, called 38 North, reported in October 2014 that the Sohae facility has completed a major construction upgrade enabling the launch of “rockets larger than the existing Unha-3 space launch vehicle.” Some North Korean military analysts think the potential for Pyongyang to unveil a new ICBM is strong. However, contrary estimates argue that testing a new, developmental rocket will not occur for several years. The 38 North report also discusses satellite imagery indicating that KN-08 rocket motor tests occurred on August 11, 2014. The KN-08 rocket tests may indicate a potential for a full-scale KN-08 ICBM test, perhaps under the guise of a rocket launch to put a satellite in orbit. The October launch may reveal the trajectory of Pyongyang’s long-range ballistic missile program and the desired capabilities for its strategic weapons arsenal.

If an impending nuclear miniaturization test with a long-range ballistic missile is nigh, what does this mean? First, it will mean that Pyongyang is one step closer to being capable of attacking the American people with nuclear-armed ICBMs. Second, the continued inability to stop the expansion of North Korea’s strategic weapons arsenal means that Washington’s engagement with Pyongyang changes from proliferation to deterrence. This is problematic because deterring North Korea from committing provocative acts without nuclear-armed long-range ballistic missiles already proves challenging. As South Korean General Kim Seung Taek wrote in a Center for Strategic and International Studies publication: “The [May 2010] Cheonan incident revealed both the limit and vulnerability of the U.S. extended deterrence. It may have been able to prevent North Korea from launching a full scale attack on South Korea, but it has not been nearly as effective in preventing such limited local provocation.” This inability may have contributed to further localized provocations, such as the bombardment of Yeonpyeong in November 2010, continued nuclear and ballistic missile tests, and drones penetrating South Korean airspace. Thus Michael Shermer’s statement in Scientific American appears true: “A deterrence strategy like mutually assured destruction (MAD) is not a long-term sustainable solution.”

What can the United States do? Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, argued in 2014, “The U.S.-ROK alliance needs to introduce more risk into its approach. [American] risk aversion grants North Korea wide latitude for mischief.…Instead of trying to counter each specific threat, Seoul and Washington need to balance deterrence by denial with deterrence by punishment.” Threatened punishment is a deterrent, the actual employment of punishment means deterrence failed. Thus far, continued threats from Washington have not resulted in Pyongyang freezing its strategic weapons development or foregoing provocative actions. Offensive capabilities that pose a threat to missiles before launch appear good on paper, but not in reality. Kim Jong-un may respond to American or allied destruction of an ICBM with costs the United States and South Korea do not want to incur, such as the bombardment of Seoul.

Therefore, the only possible course of action is to continue employing a strategy that relies solely on missile defense. However, this course of action, though capable of preventing Pyongyang from attacking Americans today, may not be true in the future. And, more worrisome, while the United States and its allies focus on building defenses, North Korea will continue to develop and deploy nuclear-armed, long-range ballistic missiles thus changing the strategic objective from proliferation to deterrence. Consequently, Pyongyang will become a nuclear weapons state simply because it is the only option on the table and there is very little the United States can do.

Matthew J. Harris is president of Prime Meridian Communications, a public policy research and communications company located in Runnemede, New Jersey. His research specializes in nuclear deterrence, missile defense and emerging security issues, with his work appearing in forums such as Charged Affairs and Comparative Strategy. He can be reached at primemeridiancommunications@gmail.com