OPINION | Reckless rhetoric distorts US options on North Korea
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Just when you thought the frenzied panic over North Korea in the Washington policy bubble was easing, here come reports that at least one U.S. intelligence agency — the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) — assesses that Pyongyang will have a “reliable” intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can reach the U.S. mainland by next year. Most analysts had a longer timetable, roughly 3-4 years.

But before you build your fallout shelter, remember there are 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies, and there is often a spectrum of assessments on this type of intelligence question. That is why the National Intelligence Council (NIC) does National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) to find a consensus among the various agencies. What's more, they don’t call them estimates for nothing (remember Iraq?). What do they mean by “reliable"? what level of confidence does the DIA have in its judgment?

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There is cause for skepticism with respect to the DIA assessment. For starters, that North Korea had a bigger engine in its newest Hwasong-14 two-stage missile and that it went farther is not evidence that its whole program has advanced as well. They don’t know if the reentry vehicle was successful or if it burned up. What about accuracy? It took the U.S., Russia and China much longer to obtain reliable ICBM forces from the same point North Korea’s missile program is at now.

 

To add a third stage to a true ICBM and have it travel the additional 4000 kilometers to hit Washington or New York creates additional heating, physical stress and other complications for a reentry vehicle to not burn up and accurately hit a target.

Perhaps such technical challenges explain why Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that Pyongyang’s recent test lacked “the capacity to strike the United States with any degree of accuracy or reasonable confidence of success." 

So where do we go from here? First, while they are likely to eventually attain ICBM capability, there is a window during which we can disrupt and inhibit their missile and nuclear programs. There is a difficult supply chain of components needed for Kim Jong Un’s missiles and nukes.

As we tighten sanctions, cutting their access to the international financial system, we can curb Pyongyang’s overseas procurement networks of operatives in places like China and Malaysia. This should be the focus of the U.S. and its partners.

Though you might not know it from the irresponsible rhetoric recently uttered by Trump officials, U.S. options are limited. Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said last week at an Aspen Institute meeting that, “It is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability.” He suggested a timeline, saying that the administration is giving diplomacy “a few more months.”

No less reckless were remarks by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, also at the Aspen forum. As reported in the press, he said that the administration is developing “a range of options” and that he was “hopeful” that the U.S. could “find a way to separate that regime from their nuclear weapons.” This implies regime change — directly contradicting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s pledge to the contrary.

In any case, loose talk of pre-emptive strikes and regime change are not exactly incentives for Kim Jong Un to surrender his nukes. Precisely the opposite: It feeds his portrayal of the U.S. as a grave, imminent threat and reinforces his belief that an ICBM is his best insurance policy against U.S. attack.

While all options should be on the table, only if the U.S. has intelligence that a North Korean attack is imminent does a pre-emptive strike make sense. Otherwise, a pre-emptive strike is not an option — unless the administration is prepared to risk the lives of 300,000-400,000 people in the greater Seoul region (including tens of thousands of Americans).

First, it is highly unlikely that we could destroy their weapons of mass destruction (WMDs): We don’t know exactly what tunnels and mountains they hide their missiles in; we don’t know exactly how many nukes they have or where they are; we don’t know how many highly-enriched uranium facilities they have or where they are. So, would we risk escalation to nuclear war and catastrophic damage for a strike that, if we were lucky, might get 15 percent of their WMDs? 

Geographic proximity has always been the problem in dealing with North Korea. Even without an ICBM, they have some 10,000 artillery tubes deployed across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), in range of Seoul, and have deployed more than 150 No Dong missiles that can hit U.S. military bases throughout South Korea and Japan.

Despite “the sky is falling” hyperbole, as horrible as it would be, the world does not end if North Korea gets a certain military capability. I recall a similar debate in 1964, when many feared that a crazy communist named Mao Zedong was about to get a nuclear weapon, and we could not allow that to happen either. 

Deterrence has worked since 1953. The one redeeming feature of North Korea is that the regime is not suicidal — it is dedicated to regime survival. We now have a state of mutual deterrence. If Pyongyang gets an ICBM, it complicates the United States' strategic calculus, but it is not obvious that deterrence would not continue to work.

They can’t destroy the U.S., only cause a lot of damage and trigger a swift and overwhelming response that equates to suicide for the regime and North Korea. Any WMD use by North Korea would be their AD — assured destruction — and they know it.

Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. He served as a senior advisor to the assistant secretary of East Asia and the Pacific (1989-93), counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs (2001-04), as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff (2004-08) and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group (2008-12). Follow him on Twitter @RManning4.


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