The alarming path to war between North Korea and America

The alarming path to war between North Korea and America
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New York Times reporters David Sanger and and William J. Broad yesterday detailed the latest reported revelations concerning North Korea’s ballistic missile program, with information about the dispersed locations, numbers and growing sophistication of Pyongyang’s missile program. It’s too bad that a headline writer at the newspaper chose to dub the North’s continued advancement of its missile facilities as “a great deception.” 

In fact, the article regurgitates the falsehood that North Korea somehow agreed to stop developing its nuclear weapons and missile programs. That’s simply not true.

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Kim Jong Un did voluntarily agree to stop missile and nuclear weapons tests and to dismantle a missile testing facility, but he agreed to nothing grander. To suggest otherwise, or that we somehow are being “deceived,” is straight-up wrong and only puts more pressure on the negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang that appear to have stalled.

Still, even if the headline is untrue, the idea that North Korea’s missile developments are a threat to everyone is not. And if a full breakdown in negotiations occurs, the North surely will desire to go back to long-range missile testing, something it has not done in almost a year. That may push the Trump administration to put “all options on the table” once again — including military action to destroy the missiles in the air or on the ground before their launch.

If that is the case, a clear path emerges to a second Korean war — one that would mean the horrifying death of millions of people. Here’s the scenario that, since last year, has kept me up more nights than I can count:

Despite decades of work toward building an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and four flight tests last year, North Korea stopped just short of its goal of building a weapon that can, with full-confidence, deliver a nuclear payload to the continental United States.

Now, with a year of analysis of data from 2017’s ICBM tests under their belts, the North would be ready to test a missile again. This time, there could be two important changes. First, the missile would not be sent just straight into the air, in a “lofted trajectory,” but instead would be fired at range — nearly 11,000 kilometers into the South Pacific — to show off its full capabilities. Second, and more importantly, the missile could be loaded with an unarmed reentry vehicle that would pierce the atmosphere to prove to the world that North Korea indeed can land an atomic payload onto a target.

This would present the biggest of problems for the Trump administration. U.S. intelligence most likely would know of the launch at least several hours, or even several days, in advance. While there would be voices in the White House who would advise showing restraint and allowing the test to proceed, others such as national security adviser John Bolton probably would push for a tough response to stop such a test. Bolton, who is on record advocating for an attack on the North, may even push for a preemptive attack on the launch site to show that Washington will not allow the Kim regime to develop such capability.

At this point, President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE would be presented with what can be described only as two very bad options. If he allowed the test to proceed — and it was a success — his critics would attack him for allowing the North to gain the ability to strike America with a nuclear weapon. If instead he decided to strike, there would be no way to accurately gauge what North Korea would do next.

That’s where things could go very wrong, very fast. If Trump would elect to destroy a missile on the ground, Kim’s response would be critical. North Korea would have little way of knowing if such a strike is a one-off or the opening salvo of a full-out assault on its nuclear weapons and missile programs. If Kim concluded that such a strike were an effort to wipe out his prized weapons, he might decide that he must use them or lose them for good.  

Then, Kim most likely would use his atomic arsenal on important ports where U.S. troops would come ashore for a potential future invasion, allied military bases in South Korea and Japan, and maybe even to strike major cities such as Seoul or Tokyo. The death toll would be catastrophic. A counterstrike by the United States would cost even more millions of lives.

Thankfully, none of this must come to pass. Since September, there has been the outline of a deal on the table in which North Korea’s denuclearization begins with Pyongyang closing its Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for a formal peace declaration ending the Korean War. Trading what amounts to a piece paper for plutonium makes sense and could begin to foster the trust needed for much bigger compromises.

But if both sides instead choose to stick to hardline positions, there is no telling what could happen. And that path should terrify us all.

Harry J. Kazianis is director of defense studies at the Center for the National Interest and executive editor of its in-house publishing arm, The National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @Grecianformula.