Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The North Korean Missile Crisis

The nuclear threat to U.S. cities requires an urgent response.

By Review & Outlook
The Wall Street Journal
July 5, 2017

North Korea continued to defy the protests of world leaders on Tuesday by launching what looks to be its first intercontinental ballistic missile. The symbolism of launching on America’s Independence Day was surely no accident, but the technical feat is more consequential. The speed of North Korea’s progress toward threatening the U.S. with a fleet of nuclear-tipped ICBMs requires an urgent response.

Tuesday’s missile, dubbed the Hwasong-14, has an estimated range of 6,700 kilometers, which puts Alaska within range. America’s lower 48 states may still be out of reach, but the test shows the North has overcome most of the obstacles to a long-range missile. The apparent success will provide more data on the remaining problems, such as a warhead capable of withstanding extremes of temperature and vibration.

One crucial question is whether the new missile is based on the Hwasong-12, an intermediate-range missile successfully tested on May 14. As we wrote at the time, that rocket was apparently a single-stage design and thus a good candidate to become the first stage of an ICBM. The regime has heretofore used engines cobbled together from Russian and Chinese missiles for its ICBM program.

The Hwasong-12 was designed from scratch, and its new engine is more sophisticated than anything the regime had produced. If the North has now attached a second stage, the U.S. will have to advance the estimates of when Los Angeles and Chicago could come under direct threat.

The Trump Administration now has some hard decisions to make as it contemplates its Korea options. More sanctions put the Kim regime under pressure and thus are worth doing, but they can’t be relied on to disarm the North in time. Like its allies South Korea and Japan, the U.S. will soon be vulnerable to attack by a regime that has an estimated 20 nuclear warheads as well as chemical and biological weapons. A pre-emptive U.S. military attack can’t be ruled out but risks a nuclear counterstrike on South Korea if even one North Korean missile survives.

China, the dovish new South Korean government and the U.S. left are pressing for more disarmament talks in return for a “freeze” on Pyongyang’s nuclear programs. But three U.S. administrations have tried diplomacy and failed. The freeze would be phony and the North would break out again when it feels its demands for more money and recognition aren’t being met.

The best option is a comprehensive strategy to change the Kim regime, as former Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph has argued. Washington must strengthen deterrence and build out missile defenses, revive the Bush Administration’s anti-proliferation dragnet, convince countries in the region to cut their ties with North Korea, consider shooting down future Korean test missiles, and spread news about the regime’s crimes to people in the North.

The U.S. will also have to recognize that Beijing is part of the problem. North Korea’s trade with China grew by 37.4% in the first quarter, contributing to an economic mini-boom. Chinese companies are cashing in on the North’s mineral resources and cheap labor while supplying the dual-use materials and technology for its nuclear and missile programs.

The U.S. has held out hope that China’s leaders would see that a nuclear-armed North Korea isn’t in its interests. But Beijing’s behavior suggests that it hopes the North Korean threat will drive the U.S. out of Northeast Asia. Only a much tougher strategy aimed at toppling the Kim regime, with or without China’s help, has a chance of eliminating a threat that puts millions of American lives at risk.

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