North Korea’s Serious New Nuclear Missile Threat
by Peter Huessy
June 11, 2015 at 5:00 am
North Korea appears to have made significant progress in extending its capability as a nuclear-armed rogue nation, to where its missiles may become capable of hitting American cities with little or no warning.
What new evidence makes such a threat compelling?
North Korea claims to have nuclear warheads small enough to fit on their ballistic missiles and missiles capable of being launched from a submerged platform such as a submarine.
Shortly after North Korea’s April 22, 2015 missile test, which heightened international concern about the military capabilities of North Korea, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged China and our regional allies to restart the 2003 “six-party talks” aimed at eliminating nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula and reining in North Korea’s expanding nuclear missile program.
There are some “experts,” however, who believe that North Korea’s threat is highly exaggerated and poses no immediate danger to the United States. Consequently, many believe that, given China’s oft-repeated support for a “nuclear weapons free” Korean peninsula, time is on America’s side to get an agreement that will guarantee just such a full de-nuclearization.
But, if North Korea’s technical advances are substantive, its missiles, armed with small nuclear weapons, might soon be able to reach the continental United States — not just Hawaii and Alaska. Further, if such missile threats were to come from submarines near the U.S., North Korea would be able to launch a surprise nuclear-armed missile attack on an American city. In this view, time is not on the side of the U.S. Submarine-launched missiles come without a “return address” to indicate what country or terrorist organization fired the missile.
The implications for American security do not stop there. As North Korea is Iran’s primary missile-development partner, whatever North Korea can do with its missiles and nuclear warheads, Iran will presumably be able to do as well. One can assume the arrangement is reciprocal.
Given recent warnings that North Korea may have upwards of 20 nuclear warheads, the United States seems to be facing a critical new danger. Would renewed negotiations with China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea really be able to address this threat?
Two years ago, Andrew Tarantola and Brian Barrett said there was “no reason to panic;” that North Korea was “a long way off” — in fact “years” — before its missiles and nuclear weapons could be “put together in any meaningful way.”
At the same time, in April 2013, an official U.S. assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency stated the U.S. had “moderate” confidence that “North Korea had indeed developed a nuclear device small enough to mount on a ballistic missile.”
That was followed up two years later, on April 7, 2015, when the commander of Northcom, Admiral Bill Gortney, one of the nation’s leading homeland security defenders, said the threat was considerably more serious. He noted that, “North Korea has deployed its new road-mobile KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile and was capable of mounting a miniaturized nuclear warhead on it.”
At a Pentagon press briefing in April, Admiral Cecil Haney, Commander of the US Strategic Command and America’s senior military expert on nuclear deterrence and missile defense, said it was important to take seriously reports that North Korea can now make small nuclear warheads and put them on their ballistic missiles.
And sure enough, in April, North Korea launched a ballistic missile from a submerged platform. Media reaction to the North Korean test has been confused. Reuters, citing the analysis of two German “experts,” claimed the North Korean test was fake — a not-too-clever manipulation of video images.
The Wall Street Journal, on May 21, 2015, echoed this view, noting: “[F]or evidence of North Korea’s bending of reality to drum up fears about its military prowess,” one need look no further than a consensus that North Korea “doctored” pictures of an alleged missile test from a submarine. This, they claimed, was proof that the “technology developments” by North Korea were nothing more than elaborately faked fairy tales.
However, Israeli missile defense expert Uzi Rubin — widely known as the “father” of Israel’s successful Arrow missile defense program — explained to this author that previous North Korean missile developments, which have often been dismissed as nothing more than mocked-up missiles made of plywood, actually turned out to be the real thing — findings confirmed by subsequent intelligence assessments.
Rubin, as well as the South Korean Defense Ministry, insist that on April 22, the North Korean military did, in fact, launch a missile from a submerged platform.
What gave the “faked” test story some prominence were the misunderstood remarks of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James Winnefeld. He had said, on May 19, that the North Korean missile launch was “not all” that North Korea said it was. He also mentioned that North Korea used clever video editors to “crop” the missile test-launch images. Apparently, that was exactly what the editors did. The Admiral, however, never claimed in his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies there had been no successful missile test.
The same day, a high-ranking State Department official, Frank Rose — Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance — told a Korean security seminar on Capitol Hill that North Korea had successfully conducted a “missile ejection” test, but from an underwater barge rather than a submarine.
To confuse matters further, additional pictures were released by the South Korean media to illustrate stories about the North Korean test. Those pictures, however, were of American missiles, which use both solid and liquid propellant; as a result, one photo showed a U.S. missile with a solid propellant smoke trail and one, from a liquid propellant, without a smoke trail. These photographs apparently befuddled Reuters’ “experts,” who may have jumped to the conclusion that the photos of the North Korean test were “faked,” when they were simply of entirely different missile tests, and had been used only to “illustrate” ocean-going missile launches and not the actual North Korean test.
According to Uzi Rubin, to achieve the capability to eject a missile from an underwater platform is a significant technological advancement. The accomplishment again illustrates “that rogue states such as North Korea can achieve military capabilities which pose a notable threat to the United States and its allies.”
Rubin also stated that the North Korean underwater launch test was closely related to the development of a missile-firing submarine, “a first step in achieving a very serious and dangerous new military capability.”
Admiral Winnefeld and Secretary Rose, in their remarks, confirmed that the North Korean test was not the “dog and pony show” some have claimed. In other words, the U.S. government has officially confirmed that the North Koreans have made a serious step toward producing a sea-launched ballistic missile capability.
While such an operational capability may be “years away,” Rubin warns that “even many years eventually pass, and it will also take many years to build up the missile defenses, so we had better use the time wisely.”
Will diplomacy succeed in stopping the North Korean threats? U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to think it worth a try; so he began the push to restart the old 2003 “six-party” talks between the United States, North Korea, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan, to bring North Korea’s nuclear weapons under some kind of international control and eventual elimination.
After all, supporters of such talks claim, similar talks with Iran appear to be leading to some kind of “deal” with Tehran, to corral its nuclear weapons program, so why not duplicate that effort and bring North Korea back into the non-nuclear fold?
What such a “deal,” if any, with Iran, will contain, is at this point unknown. Celebrations definitely seem premature. If the “deal” with North Korea is as “successful” as the P5+1’s efforts to rein in Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program, the prognosis for the success of diplomacy could scarcely be more troubling.
Bloomberg’s defense writer, Tony Carpaccio, reflecting Washington’s conventional wisdom, recently wrote that of course China will rein in North Korea’s nuclear program: “What might be a bigger preventative will be the protestations of China, North Korea’s primary trade partner and only prominent international ally. Making China angry would put an already deeply impoverished, isolated North Korea in even more dire straits.”