Success after Singapore hinges on credible US missile defense

Success after Singapore hinges on credible US missile defense
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With President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon tells Russia to stand down Billionaire GOP donor maxed out to Manchin following his Build Back Better opposition MORE and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un meeting in Singapore to discuss peace on the Korean peninsula, Tuesday’s negotiations pit North Korean hopes for economic sanctions relief and security guarantees against U.S. demands for total denuclearization. Yet, it is U.S. security and that of our allies — South Korea and Japan — that must guide the American team’s position in the talks; and missile defense should be a key component of the U.S. strategic posture in Asia.

Both heads of state concede that the June 12 dialogue marks the beginning of “a process,” meaning that even a best-case scenario will not see the scrapping of Kim’s nuclear stockpile overnight — and a best-case scenario is not the most likely outcome.

Until the DPRK fulfills what the State Department calls CVID: the complete, verifiable, irreversible disarmament of its nuclear weapons program, the United States and her allies remain at risk from the specter of North Korean missiles.  It would therefore behoove the United States to prioritize investment in its deterrence capabilities — including the terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) system deployed to Guam and South Korea, and two advanced radars to Japan. In particular, the U.S. has to rely on its Ground Based Midcourse Defense System (GMD) — to both serve as a guard against potential threats and as credible leverage throughout the negotiation process.


Despite the confident tone of President Trump prior his departure for Singapore, it would be naïve to overlook the many obstacles standing in the way of complete and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The first and most prominent is Kim’s instinct for self-preservation. Nuclear weapons provide the ultimate insurance policy for his regime. If Pyongyang maintains a real nuclear second-strike capability, for example by using nuclear-armed submarines, its borders are all but immune from invasion.

The Trump administration will be asking Kim to surrender this unprecedented strategic advantage. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s “Libya Model” statement may have only entrenched North Korea’s hardliners against termination of their weapons program.

Outside influence from US strategic competitors Russia and China pose other complications. It is no coincidence that Trump’s May 24th summit cancellation occurred shortly after an outburst of hateful rhetoric on the part of Kim Jon Un, which followed a surprise visit with Chinese Premiere Xi Jinping — his second in 40 days.

The relationship between the two Asian leaders has been frosty since Kim’s ascent in 2012. Beijing, which has the most influence over its unruly and impoverished neighbor, is no doubt concerned over Kim’s overtures to the United States. It makes sense that Xi may be encouraging Kim to be recalcitrant.  North Korea may serve as a useful strategic distraction — if all becomes quiet on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. will be better able to focus on China.

For similar reasons, Russia too may be coaxing the North Koreans away from full cooperation with Washington. The Kremlin played a marginal role in the latest diplomatic dance on the Korean Peninsula. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quick to capitalize on the initial dissolution of talks in May, flying to Pyongyang just days afterwards and promising Kim a summit with Putin. This would be Kim’s first summit with Putin. Kim reciprocated by complaining to Russia about “American hegemonism” — music to Putin’s ears.

Even assuming that the Kim regime is honestly committed to denuclearization, steps towards CVID will take time and many internal and external factors may derail the process. In the meantime, the United States must commit to strengthening its defensive capabilities vis-à-vis North Korea with an emphasis on missile defense. The DPRK’s arsenal currently boasts intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the mainland United States. From the Hwasong-12 ballistic missile with a reported range of 4,500 km (which threatens U.S. assets in Guam and western Alaska) to the Hwsaong-13, 14, and 15 variants with ranges of 8,000 km, 10,000 km and 13,000 km respectively, every major city on the west coast and possibly those on the eastern seaboard are potential targets. They will remain so as long as Kim possesses the technology to miniaturize and affix nuclear weapons to his arsenal of ICBMs.

The only credible U.S. countermeasure to North Korean missiles is the GMD system, composed of 44 interceptors installed across Fort Greely Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The system as it stands today is imperfect — intercepting nine of 18 targets over the past few years — though the complexity of hitting missile with another missile cannot be understated. It is of utmost importance that the GMD program continue to be maintained, funded, expanded and modernized; both as a contingency should talks fail, and as a bargaining chip to support their success.

Just as President Ronald Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative while negotiating nuclear disarmament deals with his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, President Trump and his team need to remember that one can deal with dictators in one way only: peace through strength.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a nonresident senior fellow at the nonprofit Atlantic Council.