North Korean missile attack is a clear and present danger to us all

North Korean missile attack is a clear and present danger to us all
© KCNA via Getty Images

A year ago on Oct. 17, I stood with four U.S. senators at the Korean Demilitarized Zone, one stop on an inspection of U.S. capabilities to defend against a missile attack from Pyongyang. Then, a missile strike was a clear danger. Now, it’s more of a clear and present danger. On Monday, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisAfter Texas shooting, lawmakers question whether military has systemic reporting problem In Africa, defense without diplomacy and development is a losing strategy McCain pledges 'rigorous oversight' after Air Force failure to report Texas gunman's conviction MORE urged military leaders “to be ready” with military options for North Korea.

That inspection took us to Alaska, where we saw young American servicemembers scrunched over radar monitors, tracking any long-range North Korean missile deemed a threat. In Seoul, we crowded into trailers and observed personnel who stood at the ready to launch Patriot missiles against shorter range threats.

ADVERTISEMENT
On Aegis-equipped destroyers, we spoke with members of the crew also trained to track and intercept offensive weapons. These men and women bravely have our lives in their hands and their hands are usually only seconds away from life and death decisions. They stare into computer monitors, tracking trajectories, velocities, longitudes and latitudes. What they can’t do is peer into the mind of Kim Jong Un to parse a bluff from a blitz.

 

I personally came away from that trip convinced that while our personnel are extraordinary and our technologies are exceptional, no one and no machine can truly anticipate a catastrophic miscalculation by either side. That means investing in two things: understanding what’s lurking in Kim’s head and strengthening our barriers from missiles streaking towards our borders and the borders of our allies.

The thinking goes that Kim is irrational and unpredictable. I disagree. His thinking is quite predictable when we consider how it’s been shaped since his birth. His world view is one, “I must reunify the Korean Peninsula,” two, “I can’t achieve that goal with the U.S. military in the south,” and three, “I must find ways to hasten its departure.”

He may be calculating that at the end of the day, no American president will retain a presence in Seoul if it means risking the population of Seattle. In this thought experiment, Kim doesn’t actually need nuclear weapons. He just needs the president to believe he has them and a reasonable ability to deliver them, at which point the United States will leave the keys in the room and check out early.

You may think the bet is bad, but for as long as Kim thinks otherwise, he’ll continue to test, launch and fire missiles in a game of “look what I can do.” Only when he believes he has no leverage will he look for an exit strategy. By then, however, it may be too late.

We have many options, including broader sanctions that include more and more countries that continue to do business with North Korea, sharper sanctions that target the North’s main money raisers and cyber capabilities, diplomacy alongside our allies in the region such as Japan and South Korea, and the military options Secretary Mattis is now assembling for the president. Whether we find ourselves in a kinetic operation remains to be seen. But that likelihood has skyrocketed beyond my expectations just a year ago and climbs higher with each passing day.

---

MORE STORIES FROM THE HILL

---

All of this means that as the president mulls our offensive capabilities, he should also play some enhanced defense. He should boldly announce — to the American people and to an audience of one in Pyongyang — a massive acceleration of U.S. ballistic missile defense technologies in the Pacific. That means allocating budgets to more robust, precise and integrated missile detection and intercept systems.

What we have is impressive. But if Kim’s thinking is that all he needs to do is convince us that he has the means and ability to fire a nuclear missile that can survive reentry and strike at an American population, we must redouble our efforts to convince him that he’ll fail.

Israel effectively deployed the Iron Dome against rockets launched from Gaza. And while its defensive systems cannot be applied to the battle space in the Pacific, every day we delay is another day we remain at risk. It won’t immediately enhance our protection, but only continued research and development has the potential to do so at some point.

Our visit a year ago gave us a chilling glimpse into the threat of a North Korean attack. But the more harrowing view was from the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, as we gazed at the multicolored splotches of oil that still rise to the surface, leaking from the Arizona itself, living testimony to what can happen when the United States doesn’t prioritize defensive strategies and technologies in an unpredictable world of threat.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April 2018.