On 4 and 28 July, North Korea tested its long-expected intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Instead of setting a long-range trajectory, the engineers chose to loft their missiles, so they fell fairly close to the Korean Peninsula. Those watching had to guess how far the missiles could have flown on a flatter trajectory. Deliberately fired on the U.S. national holiday, the first test showed that the missile could reach Alaska. The second was interpreted to show sufficient range—about 7,000 miles—to reach the U.S. East Coast.
Neither test gave any indication of the missile’s accuracy or throw weight. Nor is there any public indication of how heavy a North Korean warhead might be, or how well it would survive the stress of atmospheric reentry. The consensus is that the North Koreans are well along in their quest to threaten the United States with nuclear attack, but that they have not quite reached a full capability. Estimates in recent years often projected initial operational capability to be about two years away, but those estimates did not indicate North Korea would have an ICBM this soon.
The July ICBM tests highlighted problems in the world’s approach to dealing with North Korea. Reportedly the North Korean program was made possible in part by Russian experts, which means Kim Jong-Un had at least tacit support from the Russian government. This is not surprising. Russia has been making all sorts of efforts to weaken the West. Any problem that makes it difficult for the United States to intervene in East Asia must be attractive to Moscow.
Until recently, the United States has been trying to convince China to cut off trade, including coal (from North Korea) and food (to North Korea), as a way of pressuring Pyongyang. China has the stark choice of accepting an irrational North Korean regime on its border or helping replace it with a unified Korean state. The irrational regime of Kim Jong-Un is unattractive, not least because at some point it may trigger and then lose a major war. The latter alternative is very unattractive to Beijing because it would bring U.S. and South Korean troops on the Chinese border. Moreover, the collapse of a communist regime, it is said, would undermine the prestige of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Even so, China and Russia voted on 5 August in the U.N. Security Council to impose crippling sanctions on North Korea. It is not clear whether the vote is an attempt to deflect possible U.S. military action or an attempt to impose control on North Korea.
The Chinese also are unlikely to favor an imploded North Korea, as it would flood China with refugees. A third alternative, which the Chinese likely favor, would be to replace Kim and his regime with a communist regime more like China’s, which would eliminate a refugee problem by fixing the North Korean economy.
It is possible the Chinese have been trying to kill Kim Jong-Un for some time without success. They may see assassination as a better option than sanctions, which could hurt China badly (through implosion and a flood of refugees). The executions of many of those around Kim Jong-Un suggest he believes some in his inner circle, perhaps at the behest of the Chinese, are trying to kill him. His internal security has thwarted any and all attempts—so far, at least.
Neither the Russians nor the Chinese have an urgent national interest in stabilizing the Korean Peninsula by reining in Kim. Neither would welcome a war, but neither likely sees war as a near-term possibility. Washington has tried to leverage China’s and Russia’s interest in good relations with the United States to convince them to pressure North Korea. As the Chinese feel more and more confident as the dominant Far Eastern power, they may feel less inclined to sacrifice anything to help the United States. At the least, that will mean less willingness to enforce economic sanctions against North Korea. Chinese interest in deposing Kim is another matter, because it has to do with their own perceived national interest.
Vladimir Putin seems to benefit politically from American enmity. He uses it to solidify support at home. This should not be a surprise. During the Cold War, the Soviet government used our enmity in exactly the same way. The difference is that the Soviet government used to amplify its anti-American rhetoric in times of détente, to protect itself against softening by its citizens. It could relax during times of increased international tension. Now that sort of insulation is nearly impossible, but the advantages of international hostility are, if anything, greater for Putin.
Kim Jong-Un explains his strategic nuclear weapon and missile programs as a means of ensuring against attack, but it is more likely that he wants to deter the United States from interfering in the operation he and his father long planned: a renewed Korean War, victorious this time. Commentators generally have accepted Kim’s stated logic and warned against U.S. military action that might trigger a massively destructive war.
It does not help that Seoul—the South Korean capital, core of its economy, and home to much of its population—lies close to the border with North Korea and likely would suffer horribly in any war. South Korea has relied on the presence of U.S. military forces as a deterrent against the North—the theory being that Pyongyang would never risk killing Americans for fear of overwhelming U.S. retaliation. In Kim Jong-Un’s mind, this problem may be well on the way to solution.
The question may be, then, what can the United States do to neutralize Kim’s deterrent and also deter him? Deterrence should mean holding at risk what the enemy feels he cannot afford to lose. It has to be understood in the enemy’s terms. What does Kim really value? Since 1945, deterrence usually has meant having the ability to strike back with nuclear weapons, which has worked for two very different reasons. The first reason is that nuclear weapons are so destructive that, even if we do not understand exactly what the other side most values, such weapons probably threaten it. The other is that the United States has not had to deter any regime that badly wanted to chance war.
The one time the United States did try to coerce a regime that saw war as an opportunity was in 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt confronted Japan with economic ruin and military defeat by cutting off the oil that fed its economy and fueled its military operations in China. Before making the decision for war, the Japanese leadership commissioned a study of U.S. and Japanese war potential, which predicted a war probably would last about three years and destroy Japan. This was a remarkably accurate prediction, which Japan accepted because its leaders preferred to “die like men rather than live like slaves” by accepting the terms the United States offered to end the oil embargo.
Kim Jong-Un’s weapon programs present the United States with two parallel requirements. First, the United States must strengthen its ballistic missile defenses (BMDs), a key part of which is the Navy’s Aegis BMD system on board destroyers and cruisers. Even when Kim’s missiles have reached full maturity, he probably will not have many of them. U.S. missile defense cannot be sure of intercepting all of them, but it can cause Kim to doubt his ability to attack.
The other part of the equation is deterring Kim to the point where war on the Peninsula is not appealing. He and his forebears have shown little concern for their own people, which limits the value of nuclear threats. Moreover, Kim probably has calculated that massive attacks on North Korea also would damage neighboring countries—South Korea, China, parts of Russia, and even Japan. It would be a different matter if the United States could convince Kim that instead of targeting his country on a massive scale it could concentrate on killing him. To do that would require displaying a credible ability to locate and track him. It might or might not be real, but it would have to be plausible. There is a precedent. Cold War studies in the 1980s showed that the only meaningful threat against the Soviet Union was to the Soviet leadership itself. Washington expressed this threat and capability by publishing diagrams of the Moscow shelter system the leadership was likely to use. Perhaps it is time to revive this sort of pressure by publishing something similar on Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-Un depends on a network of secret police for his survival. It is hard to say whether North Korea’s populace would revolt if the secret police were eliminated, but Kim clearly does not trust his people. It may take a very powerful nuclear warhead to destroy Kim’s shelter, but the police network is unlikely to enjoy similar protection and could be subject to destruction. The U.S. Navy is particularly well placed to make such a threat. Each of the four converted Ohio (SSGN-726)-class cruise missile submarines carries 154 Tomahawk missiles, which represent a threat that could surprise and destroy Kim’s perceived ability to maintain his rule. When the USS Michigan (SSGN-727) suddenly arrived in Busan, South Korea, on 25 April of this year, this may have been the implied message.
The United States demonstrated this tactic when the Iraqis tried to kill former U.S. President George H. W. Bush in 1993. The U.S. retaliation was a cruise missile attack on Iraq’s secret police headquarters, which also sent a message to then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein: the United States had the ability to destabilize his government. Unlike Saddam Hussein himself, the entire secret police could not be sheltered or hidden; they were the right deterrent target. If such an attack were carried out against North Korea, surprise would be vital, because without it the secret police might flee their offices and thus survive.
Dr. Friedman is the author of The Naval Institute Guide to World Naval Weapon Systems, Fifth Edition, and Network-centric Warfare: How Navies Learned to Fight Smarter Through Three World Wars, available from the Naval Institute Press at www.usni.org.