OPINION | Defending homeland from North Korean threat must be top priority

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In open testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Gen. Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that North Korea currently has the ability to at least strike Alaska with an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). While Selva noted that Pyongyang most likely cannot yet hit targets with accuracy and that its warheads may not be able to survive re-entry into the atmosphere, his testimony was yet one more public affirmation that Kim Jong Un has reached a milestone that changes the global nuclear balance.

North Korea may not become a fully-capable nuclear weapons state for years. It may never field missiles with the accuracy of American weapons. Yet, that it has now become a strategic threat to the United States can no longer be ignored. For the past six decades, since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang has been a danger to its neighbors and to the U.S. military personnel stationed on the Korean Peninsula and in Asia.

{mosads}It now threatens U.S. territory directly and will eventually gain the ability to target all of America’s major population centers. It does so, moreover, as it relentlessly pursues not just an atomic bomb, but a hydrogen bomb that can be fitted onto its missiles.


Even one atomic attack on an American city would change our country forever. Yet, as North Korea continues to perfect its nuclear and ICBM programs, the ways in which nuclear weapons could be used against the United States increases dramatically.

First, there is no assurance that Pyongyang will have anything like the command and control systems the U.S. military has; even with our systems, moreover, we have had multiple close calls and accidents. Second, we know too little about different factions in North Korea, including in the military, to be confident that no one will act of their own accord to use nuclear weapons during a time of crisis. Third, and most worryingly, experts on North Korea agree that the Kim regime would almost certainly use its nuclear arsenal if it felt its existence were threatened or that it was about to lose a war on the Korean Peninsula.

Whereas those threatened up to now by North Korea’s nuclear program were primarily South Korea and Japan, the United States will soon be put into that category.

The primary question facing U.S. policy toward North Korea is correspondingly shifting. No longer is it a question of denuclearizing (or de-missilizing) the Korean Peninsula, since there is no prospect Pyongyang will give up its programs, short of military compulsion. The U.S. now faces a three-fold task of deterrence, containment and defense.

Deterrence has been the default, if unacknowledged, U.S. strategy toward North Korea for decades, but it will take on a different aspect with a nuclear North Korea. Thinking how to deter a nuclear Pyongyang, which may relish the blackmailing power it believes it has, will require a clear U.S. declaratory policy that links nuclear with conventional military power.

As for containment, the failure of sanctions to dent North Korea’s illicit activity abroad, let alone its nuclear and missile programs, means a more serious attempt to isolate the regime is needed. This will be difficult, if not impossible, without Chinese help, which is why the Trump administration’s levying of secondary sanctions on a Chinese bank is important and may signal a new approach in this field.

Ultimately, however, Washington must be able to defend the U.S. homeland against any North Korean missile threat. Today, it is highly questionable whether it can do so. There is no system that can take out North Korean ballistic missiles in the earliest, or “boost” phase, when they are traveling the slowest. The sea-based Aegis system needs to be closer to the launch site than can be achieved with North Korea.

Moreover, with Pyongyang increasing the number of its mobile ballistic missiles, even tracking launch sites, so as to have advanced warning of an attack, may be infeasible. And despite a successful July test of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, that and the Ground Based Midcourse Defense system are far from proven and have as many test failures as successes.

The sobering truth is that we cannot defend ourselves with any level of certainty from North Korea, let alone Russian or Chinese, missiles. Given the return of a nuclear balance of terror, with rogue actors such as North Korea now added into the mix, a major effort at missile defense may become a national priority in the 2020s, if not before.

A quarter-century of failed diplomacy with North Korea has shown that aggressive states are not deterred by U.S. threats, rhetoric, or incomplete sanctions. To use a vernacular formulation, a hard-power problem requires a hard-power approach. Credibly defending the American homeland is the starting point of blunting and eventually negating the North Korean nuclear missile threat. Washington has waited too long to take the threat seriously. It can do so no longer.

Michael Auslin is the Williams-Griffis fellow in contemporary Asia at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

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