North Korean nuclear threat is here
Kim Jong Un has done a good job keeping the United States guessing about his next nuclear provocation. North Korea had threatened that it would pursue a more hardline “new path” by the end of last year unless the United States dropped its “hostile” policies toward the country. This was followed by promises of a “Christmas gift” in December, which was widely speculated to be the test of a more advanced long range missile system. Kim most recently announced that North Korea would no longer be bound by its own limits on long range missile and nuclear testing, and stated that “the world will witness a new strategic weapon” system soon.
Some experts have been concerned that the United States is on the cusp of losing its last chance to prevent a real nuclear threat from North Korea. Former national security adviser John Bolton, for instance, tweeted only a few weeks ago that the United States needs to act fast before North Korea “has the technology to threaten the American homeland.” Others, though, including apparently some officials in the administration, view the lack of a “Christmas gift” as a demonstration of the success of President Trump.
But these concerns miss the broader point that the nuclear threat from North Korea is already here. The days when North Korea was thought of having a handful of nuclear weapons that may not be deliverable with a missile are over. The bigger issue is how the United States and its allies need to adapt to rapidly expanding North Korean nuclear capabilities.
While Trump is right that North Korea has not tested a long range missile since his first summit with Kim back in 2018, North Korea has been busily advancing other elements of its nuclear deterrent. Kim has continued to churn out more nuclear warheads and missiles during this interim period. According to one estimate in 2018, he had as many as 60 warheads, and his stockpile has likely grown since. The pace of North Korean missile testing also kept up with some of the most aggressive years on record.
This included solid rocket missiles, which can be launched faster than their liquid counterparts thus reducing warning time, and missiles that could pose challenges to regional missile defenses, making American allies and regional bases more vulnerable. North Korea has also made progress in developing its own submarine launched ballistic missile. All these advances, made during a period when the relationship between Pyongyang and Washington was supposedly never better, show that Kim is not interested in disarming. Rather, he seeks a robust nuclear arsenal.
This has all occurred in the past year and a half. North Korea conducted what it claimed was its second test of a thermonuclear weapon in 2017, upping the lethality of its force. That same year North Korea also carried out three intercontinental ballistic missile tests, demonstrating that the entire United States is already likely within range of a North Korean attack. While the precise reliability of its reentry vehicle remains unclear, as in the odds that the warhead would survive the intense conditions of flight, any American president will operate under the assumption that North Korea could strike the homeland during a crisis. This is no small victory for Kim.
Coupled with these new technical developments, cleavages in the United States alliances with South Korea and Japan, and the critical relationship between Seoul and Tokyo, are creating a vulnerability that North Korea will likely try and exploit in 2020. For instance, American demands that South Korea, and reportedly Japan, drastically increase the amount they pay to support the American forces stationed on their soil has created a useless point of friction and has generated a backlash against the United States.
Moreover Trump, who ultimately decides whether the United States will honor its defense commitments, has stated that he could “go either way” on whether it is in American interests to keep troops in the region, has suggested he shares with Kim the view that exercises between the United States and South Korea are “ridiculous and expensive,” and has dismissed North Korean missile tests that pose a threat to American allies as “very standard.” If Kim focuses tensions on South Korea and Japan this year and Trump looks the other way, then this will further erode allied confidence.
There is little the United States can do to stop Kim from going down this pathway of renewed provocations if that is his intention. A subpar deal that provides substantial sanctions relief, but without verifiable limits on his ability to grow the program, is worse than no deal at all. Conversely, raising pressure will not prevent North Korea from building weapons. The task to prioritize now is analyzing how Kim might leverage his increasingly sophisticated capabilities to challenge and undermine deterrence in East Asia, and then begin working with American allies to repair those gaps.
Eric Brewer is deputy director of the Project on Nuclear Issues with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as director for counterproliferation on the National Security Council staff.
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