Washington think tanks came back from Thanksgiving vacation to find out that North Korea had tested a ballistic missile that could reach most of America, including Washington DC.
This week’s Monitor analysis looks at potential responses to the latest test. We note the risks of military action and how much more development must take place before North Korea has a credible nuclear threat. We also see another alternative that Trump may be covertly pursuing.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The Heritage Foundation argues that in light of Iranian and North Korean ballistic missile developments, the US must invest more in missile defense. They conclude, “Our systems have compiled an impressive test record. Yes, sometimes they have failed a test, but that’s not automatically a bad thing. In testing, we learn more from failures than successes. We stress the system and push it to its limits. Failures allow us to identify weaknesses in the system and fix them. It’s a process that has produced ever more reliable defenses. Is it perfect? No. But certainly the alternative — letting the enemy missile have a free ride into an American city — is unacceptable. Technologies improve every day. What seemed like science fiction even five years ago is a common occurrence now. That is why the government must sustain its investment in missile defense. It must also increase funding for future missile defense technologies so we are not caught by surprise and vulnerable.”
The American Enterprise Institute argues that the US should take out the North Korean mobile missile site. They note, “Here is how Trump should respond: Take out the test site from which the North Koreans launched the missile toward Japan — just like he struck the military base in Syria from which the Assad regime had launched a chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians…Trump should declare North Korea a ballistic missile “no-fly zone” and a nuclear weapons “no-test zone.” He should warn the North Koreans that any further attempts to launch a ballistic missile will be met with a targeted military strike either taking out the missile on the launch pad or blowing it up in the air using missile defense technology. And any further attempt to test a nuclear weapon will be met with a targeted strike taking out the test site and other related nuclear facilities. So long as North Korea does not retaliate, Trump should assure Pyongyang that he will take no further military action against the regime. However, if North Korea does retaliate, then the United States reserves the right to, as Trump put it to the UN General Assembly, “totally destroy North Korea.”
The Washington Institute looks at high-level meetings between North Korean and Iranian officials in recent months – especially in the field of ballistic missile development. They noted, “Last year, U.S. authorities reported that missile technicians from one of Iran’s most important defense companies, the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, had traveled to North Korea to help develop an eighty-ton rocket booster for ballistic missiles. One of the company’s top officials, Sayyed Javad Musavi, has allegedly worked in tandem with the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. (KOMID), which the United States and UN have sanctioned for being a central player in procuring equipment for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. For example, Shahid Hemmat has illegally shipped valves, electronics, and measuring equipment to KOMID for use in ground testing of space-launch vehicles and liquid-propellant ballistic missiles.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at the new geopolitics that come out of the summit in Sochi between the Presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited President Putin in the same city. They note, “The key to understanding both the strategic dynamics that led to the Moscow-Ankara-Teheran condominium, and to its possible future significance, is the perceived absence and irrelevance of the West in the Middle East. This is due in a large part to its failure, and specifically that of the United States under Presidents Obama and Trump, to effectively address the crisis in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Iran’s ally and creation, Hezbollah (aided by Iraqi Shia militias), stepped in and turned the tide; Turkey decided to go with the devil it knows (Assad) rather than the anarchic and – for it – even more destabilizing alternatives, to block the Kurds, and to join the winning team. The rest of the world (Israel is a clear exception), including the United States – whose President spoke with Putin for over an hour, “mostly about Syria,” according to Administration officials, two days before the Sochi summit, and seems to have promised President Erdogan in a phone call Friday that military aid to the YPG Kurdish militia will cease – and the EU, are apparently just happy someone (else) is doing the work.”
The CSIS argues that the Trump Administration is neglecting the Middle East. They note, “President Trump’s effusive warmth does not indicate a strategic U.S. recalculation. As is becoming increasingly apparent, he returns warmth to all who show it to him. In addition, however, the president’s warmth is not a good predictor of administration policy. For example, President Trump has been outwardly quite warm to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, yet in August the U.S. government quietly cut aid to Egypt by more than $95 million and decided to hold another $195 million in escrow until U.S. human rights and democratization concerns in Egypt were addressed. He has been warm to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, but he has done little to reverse Iran entrenching itself more deeply on Israel’s northern border. Second, the Trump administration has taken itself out of resolving some of the most important conflicts in the Middle East. For example, Americans continue to be marginalized in discussions over the future of Syria, there is little active mediation of the war in Yemen, and U.S. diplomacy over Qatar’s fight with its neighbors has been ineffectual. If the administration argues that it is focused on Iran—which one could argue—one must admit that all of these conflicts advance Iranian interests at the expense of U.S. interests.”
The Foreign Policy Research Institute looks at North Korean- Russian relations. They note that since the late 19th century Russia has been a major stakeholder in Korean affairs, at times exercising critical influence on the peninsula. The unfolding crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs may significantly raise Russia’s profile on the peninsula.
Sabotage might be the US Response to North Korea’s Missile and Nuclear Programs
North Korea said on Wednesday it had successfully tested a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called the Hwasong-15 that could reach the entire U.S. mainland. They reported that the new powerful missile reached an altitude of around 4,475 km (2,780 miles) – more than 10 times the height of the international space station – and flew 950 km (600 miles) during its 53-minute flight. Based on its trajectory and distance, the missile would have a range of more than 13,000 km (8,100 miles) – more than enough to reach Washington D.C. and the rest of the United States, albeit with a reduced payload according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. In addition, the range covers all of Earth’s continents, except South America and Antarctica.
The missile test wasn’t a complete surprise as the US had publicly warned that North Korea was preparing for a new launch.
Within minutes of North Korea’s ICBM launch, South Korea had fired its own missile to show that it was able to quickly respond.
The missile landed about 210km west of Japan’s Kyurokujima Island, Tokyo said.
The North Korean missile was fired eastwards, which kept the boost phase over North Korean territory. The boost phase was over 50 minutes, which indicates that it has the power to reach American cities like Washington DC.
The new Hwasong-15 missile, named after the planet Mars, was a more advanced version of an ICBM tested twice in July, North Korea said, adding “it was designed to carry a “super-large heavy warhead.” That was a clear threat that it was designed to carry a hydrogen bomb.
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the White House, “It went higher frankly than any previous shot they’ve taken, a research and development effort on their part to continue building ballistic missiles that can threaten everywhere in the world, basically,”
Washington has said repeatedly said that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea while stressing its desire for a peaceful solution.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added: “Diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.”
Trump’s response was measured. He spoke by phone with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-In, with all three leaders reaffirming their commitment to combat the North Korean threat.
Trump said: “It is a situation we will handle.”
He said the launch did not change his administration’s approach to North Korea, which has included new curbs to hurt trade between China and North Korea, which it sees as important to deterring Pyongyang from its ambition to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the United States.
What does Missile Test Really Mean?
Although it is quite apparent that North Korea has solved one of the major problems of producing an ICBM that can reach the US, it does not necessarily mean that they have solved all the problems of mating a thermonuclear weapon to an ICBM.
Although North Korea has tested a hydrogen bomb, we do not know if it is small enough to mate to an ICBM. In fact, many scientists question if the Hwasong-15 missile had a payload that was equivalent in weight and dimensions to a nuclear payload.
First generation hydrogen bombs can be quite large. The first hydrogen bomb (Ivy Mike Test), tested by the US, was massive, and too large to place on a bomber. It took years before the device was miniaturized enough to fit onto an ICBM.
At this time, there is no publicly available information to indicate the size of the NK nuclear device, although there are pictures of the NK leadership viewing a purported nuclear device capable of fitting onto a missile.
There is also the issue of ruggedization of the weapon so it can withstand the dynamic forces and the heat it will experience during reentry.
Although thermonuclear devices are powerful, they still need a sophisticated guidance system to ensure that they can hit a target thousands of miles away. Since the North Korean tests have terminated in the ocean, there is no indication as to how accurate they are and if they have the accuracy to actually hit a city like Washington DC, even if they have the range.
There is also the question of reentry. The missile or reentry vehicle must be strong and heat resistant enough to withstand the heat and dynamic forces of reentry. Traditionally, North Korean missiles have a tendency to break apart during reentry, which would probably destroy the hydrogen bomb before detonation.
In addition to building a rugged reentry vehicle, the North Koreans must develop a refractory material that will cover the reentry vehicle and absorb the incredible heat of reentry. The refractory material must burn evenly so that there is no asymmetrical erosion, which would cause the vehicle to tumble and tear apart in the atmosphere.
Of course, North Korea could solve some of these problems by designing a blunt nosecone that would travel at a slower speed through the reentry phase. However, the slower the reentry vehicle, the greater the chance that American, South Korean, or Japanese anti-missile systems can intercept it.
However, these problems are all solvable and the only question is if they have already been solved, or how long it will take to solve them.
It’s also important to remember that this is a liquid fueled missile that must be moved from a bunker and fueled on the launch pad. Needless to say, this gives America and its allies some warning and the opportunity to attempt to destroy the missile before launching. This means that North Korea’s nuclear option is limited and very vulnerable until they develop a solid fueled ICBM as the other nuclear powers have.
Although North Korea has a nuclear option, it is so limited that the US, South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia still have some time with which to operate.
This lack of excitement was seen by the response by Yang Xiyu, a Korean affairs expert and senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, a Chinese Foreign Ministry-affiliated think tank.
“North Korea’s missile launches enjoy diminishing marginal utility in terms of political impact and shock value,” Mr. Yang said. “The latest test doesn’t really affect the options that China and the U.S. have in dealing with North Korea.”
Many obvious military options have downsides. North Korea’s nuclear and missile infrastructure is large and dispersed enough that a tactical strike against it would provoke North Korea without dramatically impacting its program.
There is the option of taking out North Korea’s leadership, specifically Kim Jong Un. However, the North Korean leader moves around so as to make such a strike difficult.
The other option is to create dissent within the armed forces so they will stage a coup. This is clearly a concern for Kim as he has frequently arrested and killed leading North Korean generals.
However, it does appear that there is some dissatisfaction with the military as seen with the recent defection of a North Korean solder along the demilitarized zone. Medical tests of the soldier show he was malnourished and riddled with parasites. This indicates that the military, which keeps Kim in power, may not be as well treated as thought, which may mean they may be more prone to back a coup.
Another option is to take direct action towards a North Korean ICBM test like shooting it down. However, North Korea was careful to prevent such a provocation. The ICBM was launched from NK’s western coast and remained over NK territory during its vulnerable boost phase. Consequently launching an anti-ICBM missile that invades North Korean airspace would be a clear provocation and could be construed as an act of war, which would likely bring retribution against South Korea.
The missile trajectory also made it immediately clear to the US that it wasn’t directed towards US territory, which reduced the chances of a military response by America.
South Korea did respond to the NK launch by firing its own missile within minutes. This indicated that the South’s military was capable of retaliating quickly if required.
North Korea also made it difficult to shoot down the missile in its reentry phase as they targeted the sea. Anti-missile systems have limited range in the terminal phase and it would have been difficult to hit the missile as it headed for splashdown in the sea.
Another reason for holding back on shooting the North Korean missile down is the political risk of a failure. A miss, would signal to the North Koreans that the US anti-ballistic missile system may not be as invincible as thought. It would also cause concern in South Korea and Japan, who have purchased US anti-missile systems.
One option available to the Japanese would be to develop and field a nuclear device. Japan is technologically advanced in nuclear science to probably build a nuclear weapon within months. However, this is unlikely as long as they are sure that the US will protect them.
However, if Japan goes nuclear, it won’t be long before South Korea takes the same route.
In the end, the most obvious response is for the US, China, and Russia to tighten economic sanctions against North Korea by preventing NK sales internationally and limiting imports.
Economic sanctions would limit the ability of North Korea to continue moving as quickly towards a credible nuclear deterrent. However, it will not stop it.
This makes the covert option of subversion and destabilization more attractive. In fact, this could very well be the response that President Trump has alluded to.
The defection of the North Korean soldier a couple of weeks ago shows that some sort of destabilization may already be taking place. Defections like that along the DMZ rarely take place because the units that guard the border are considered elite and receive more privileges.
According to some US analysts, the defection of a soldier from that sort of unit shows dissatisfaction within elite units of the North Korean military – dissent possibly spread as a result of American and South Korean activities.
Same analysts are speculating on the scenario of a potential large scale dissention in the military ranks, which may indicates that conditions within the security apparatus are deteriorating, and therefore the chances of a military coup must be seriously considered.
If a coup takes place, it’s likely according to advocate of such measure that the new leadership may quickly make some arrangement with the US and its allies to eliminate, freeze, or restrict its nuclear program in return for a quick removal of economic sanctions and a large shipment of food for its citizens.
If that is the case, it makes the Trump and Trump administration subversion action likely. Subversion doesn’t pose the political or military risk of direct action. Subversion offers a way to possibly roll back North Korea’s nuclear program. Subversion allows the US more time to strengthen its anti-missile system. And, subversion is a logical long-term strategy in a situation where North Korea still hasn’t developed a missile that can reliably deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental US.
That being the case, it is a more logical strategy that many of the more “energetic” military options being recommended.
Keeping Up With North Korea’s and Iran’s Bad Ballistic Missiles
By Michaela Dodge
November 27, 2017
This year, North Korea celebrated the Fourth of July by testing long-range missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Four months later, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported that Pyongyang is now able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead.
North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Un, has made no secret of his desire to nuke the U.S. In 2013, he threatened to nuke Austin, Texas. He also has cited Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., as preferred targets. Small wonder, then, that the Trump administration last week requested an additional $4 billion to beef up U.S. missile defenses. Currently, our very limited missile defense systems are concentrated in the West. Cities on the East Coast are far less protected. And the missile threat for both coasts is growing.
Read more at:
Trump should take out the site where North Korea just launched a missile
By Marc A. Thiessen
American Enterprise Institute
November 28, 2017
The Washington Post reports that North Korea has carried out its first ballistic missile test in more than two months: North Korea launched a missile early Wednesday morning, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said. . . . Wednesday’s missile was launched from Pyongan province and fired to the east, South Korea’s joint chiefs said, according to the Yonhap News Agency. The military was still working to ascertain what kind of missile it was. North Korea last fired a missile on Sept. 15, sending it over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. It was the second launch over Japan in less than three weeks and came less than two weeks after North Korea exploded what was widely believed to be a hydrogen bomb. In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations at the end of last month, Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy, said that if North Korea went 60 days without testing a missile or a nuclear weapon, it could be a sign that Pyongyang was open to dialogue. Apparently they are not so open to dialogue after all. Indeed, the North Korean launch is a finger in the eye to China, which had just sent a high level envoy to Pyongyang at President Trump’s request. Trump tweeted hopefully about the Chinese visit: “China is sending an Envoy and Delegation to North Korea – A big move, we’ll see what happens!” What happened was a big middle finger to Beijing and Washington from “Little Rocket Man.”
Read more at:
Benign Neglect in the Middle East
By Jon B. Alterman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 27, 2017
In March 1, 1970, the front page of the New York Times reported that then-Nixon administration adviser Daniel Patrick Moynihan had advised that the issue of race in the United States “could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect.’” Years of racially inspired violence and polemics had “created opportunities for martyrdom, heroics, histrionics, or whatever,” and Moynihan advised that the U.S. government’s focus on racial problems actually helped stoke them. While Gulf Arab governments seem deeply relieved that they enjoy the support of the Trump administration after eight years of coolness under President Obama, the Trump strategy toward the Gulf is less different from Obama’s than they would like. In fact, it’s not so different from Moynihan’s approach to race. Despite the perception that President Trump is doubling down on relationships in the Gulf, it is more accurate to see his strategy as disentangling the United States from intimate relationships that he believes have outlived their utility. While the tenor of conversations has changed, the Trump administration represents a continuation of a growing U.S. distance from the Gulf and not a reversal of it. In the view of many Americans, diminishing U.S. ties to the Middle East are part of an “America First” strategy and are long overdue.
Read more at:
Nuclear Weapons And Russian-North Korean Relations
By Artyom Lukin
Foreign Policy Research Institute
November 29, 2017
Apart from its UN Security Council veto, what makes Russia a consequential player in the North Korea drama? The Soviet Union helped create the DPRK. Common genesis and long-standing political ties explain some of the affinity that still exists between the two countries. While Russia’s economic leverage with the North is not as substantial as China’s, it still can make a difference, especially as the sanctions noose on the DPRK tightens. Of special note are Russian energy exports to the North, Russia’s importation of North Korean labor, and Russia’s use of the North Korean port of Rajin. Russia remains the only country besides China that provides the DPRK with permanent transport and telecommunications links—via rail, air, sea, and the internet—connecting the isolated nation to the outside world. Taken together, such commercial exchanges and infrastructure links constitute significant leverage that Moscow could exercise over North Korea. Among the major players on the peninsula, Russia currently enjoys the best relations with the North, even as the DPRK’s ties with its only formal ally, China, have deteriorated in recent years. Finally, Russia is a military force in Northeast Asia, which means that, in case of a North Korea contingency, Moscow has the capacity to intervene militarily, aiding or derailing moves by other players.
Read more at:
New Geopolitics in the Middle East?
By Joshua Krasna
Foreign Policy Research Institute
November 27, 2017
The possible creation of a new geopolitical reality in the Middle East may have snuck under the radar this holiday weekend. The continuing spectacle of the investigations into Russia’s possible involvement in the 2016 Election and the continued naming and shaming of corporate leaders and politicians involved in sexual harassment (as well as Thanksgiving), may have overshadowed the summit in Sochi between the Presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, shortly after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited President Putin in the same city (and thanked him for “saving Syria”). The three presidents announced the winding down of the radical Islamist threat in Syria and the continued cooperation of their three states until “the final defeat” of the Islamic State and the al-Nusra front. More significantly, they announced the convening of a Syrian National Dialogue Congress in Sochi in the near future, aimed at a “political solution to the crisis through a comprehensive, free, fair and transparent Syrian-Syrian process, that leads to a draft constitution with the support of Syrians and free and fair elections with participation of all people in Syria, under the proper supervision of the United Nations” (not a little ironic, considering the questionable democratic bona fides of the three regimes) and stressed their continued joint involvement in rebuilding Syria. According to the Russian press, Putin called President Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, President Abd el-Fatah a-Sisi of Egypt, and Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and informed them of the details of the summit.
Read more at:
High-Level Contacts Between North Korea and Iran Hint at Deeper Military Cooperation
By Jay Solomon
November 27, 2017
High-level meetings between North Korean and Iranian officials in recent months are stoking concerns inside the U.S. government about the depth of military ties between the two American adversaries. In September, President Trump ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct a fresh review of any potential bilateral nuclear collaboration. Yet officials in Washington, Asia, and the Middle East who track the relationship indicate that Pyongyang and Tehran have already signaled a commitment to jointly develop their ballistic missile systems and other military/scientific programs. North Korea has vastly expanded its nuclear and long-range missile capabilities over the past year, developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that could potentially target the western United States with nuclear warheads. Over the same period, U.S. intelligence agencies have spotted Iranian defense officials in Pyongyang, raising the specter that they might share dangerous technological advances with each other. “All of these contacts need to be better understood,” said one senior U.S. official working on the Middle East. “This will be one of our top priorities.”
Read more at: