North Korea’s new ICBMs change little about threat to the US

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The second test-firing of North Korea's Hwasong-14 ICBM is shown in this undated picture provided by state media in Pyongyang on July 29, 2017. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

North Korea’s launch of an ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) in early July, followed by another even longer-range missile 24 days later, has generated a lot of buzz. While the detailed analyses of those launches have yet to be published, we do know that both missiles are clearly of a class whose range is at least 3,400 miles (5,500 kilometers).

The fact that Pyongyang can now reach out to touch much of America is not yet a significant security dilemma for Washington, however. Let’s analyze the true significance of the North’s latest achievements.

What has not changed

Much of South Korea has been within range of Pyongyang’s artillery, unguided rockets, and short-range missiles, for some time. Indeed, such threats against Seoul and its huge metropolitan surroundings have existed for many years. As for Japan, North Korea has long had the ability to deliver some type of warhead to much of the island nation. However, without a reliable re-entry vehicle to protect a nuclear device during re-entry into the atmosphere, a missile of any longer range adds little to the threat level for Seoul or Tokyo.

Even when North Korea does achieve a reliable nuclear delivery system, American deterrence first developed during the Cold War will still be effective. US ICBMs are far superior to North Korea’s – more accurate, more powerful, more reliable, and more plentiful. Unless it feels an American attack is imminent, Pyongyang is not about to pre-emptively attack the US, for the retaliation would be swift and staggeringly destructive.

What has changed

North Korea has indeed proved its ability to hit, even if it cannot yet hurt, US military bases in the Pacific – not only Okinawa, but Guam and Hawaii as well. Moreover, the North can target the mainland US well beyond Alaska, including its West Coast, heartlands and perhaps even further, even if they are most likely impotent projectiles at this time.

This draws the US deeper into the game – it can no longer be a reluctant and distant player. Even though Washington would eventually prevail in a nuclear shootout with Pyongyang, the threat of nuclear weapons will soon work both ways. If anything, this ought to convince US President Trump that any inclination to disengage from the world is not prudent.

The result is that we have a stand-off, just with much higher stakes – like those that existed between the West and its adversaries during the Cold War. In such a situation, when all options are bad, North Korea becomes the equal of the United States. The West and its allies will have to deal with Pyongyang in the same way they dealt with Moscow and Beijing back then – with forethought and intelligence. We have done this before; we ought to be able to do it again.

A happy ending – for now

South Koreans are desensitized to bluster and threats from the North and seem to be taking recent developments somewhat in stride. Conversely, for Japan and America, this is seen as a new threat level, though one not fully developed, and both are understandably concerned. There are, however, good reasons not to panic.

Despite the apparent inability of many Western diplomats and politicians to understand Kim Jong Un, he is very much a rational actor, far more adept at reading his opponents than they are at fathoming his unconventional thinking and asymmetrical tactics. Kim will not initiate hostilities – for he knows that would be the demise of his regime.

The North’s possession of ICBMs without a reliable re-entry system has little immediate impact on the long-standing face-off between the two countries

But this is where Washington finds itself on the horns of a dilemma. The conventional thinking is that the US must now make some show of force to once again demonstrate its military might and national resolve. Unfortunately, fly-bys of American nuclear-capable bombers do not ease tensions any more than stationing US Navy carrier task force groups in Korean waters. In fact, these actions feed the North’s fear that the US is readying an attack. Should that fear boil over, something no one wants might happen.

Tensions are quite high, but we have weathered similar situations before. Absent a serious miscalculation – as likely by Washington as by Pyongyang these days – the North’s possession of ICBMs without a reliable re-entry system has little immediate impact on the long-standing face-off between the two countries.

Everyone can stand down from their battle stations while our military planners continue to work on effective counter measures. The sky is not falling – yet.

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