THE scenario playing out in the Korean peninsula seems to be predicated on the assumption that Pyongyang’s ultimate goal is to point its nuclear dagger at the heart of America, just for the heck of it.
Analysts were quick to point out that although the success of North Korea’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile test brings it closer to the goal, it does not imply that Pyongyang is now able to lob a couple of warheads on New York, Los Angeles, or Kansas, with impunity.
There is still that fiddly bit of making sure that the warhead survives the plunge through the atmosphere without burning up. Aside from sorting out the problem of thermodynamics and heat-shielding, guidance is also a hurdle. While some may argue that since it’s a thermonuclear device, where it lands matters not a whit, it wouldn’t do Kim Jong-un’s credibility any good if the warhead detonates over Montana, when the intended target was Washington, DC.
The other aspect North Korea might be working on in its “ICBM 101” programme is in the area of MIRVs, or multiple, independently-targeted re-entry vehicles; decoys and other penetration aids. Essentially, to get a bigger bang for his North Korean buck, Jong-un’s ICBM techs are looking at loading each launcher with multiple warheads with their own, pre-programmed targets, so that one missile could effectively obliterate multiple targets in one go. The United States’ LGM-30 Minuteman ICBM, for example, carries three MIRVs, with a yield of between 300 and 500 kilotons, each. Russia’s RT-2PM2 Topol-M is capable of carrying between four and six MIRVs, each with an 800-kiloton yield. Decoys could also be loaded to confuse anti-ballistic missile defence systems, such as the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile batteries, a number of which had already been pre-positioned in Seonju, South Korea.
So, does North Korea even need an ICBM that can reach the continental US to get what it wants? The short answer is “no”. If Jong-un’s ultimate goal is the reunification of the two Koreas, with him as Supreme Leader, he already has enough short-, medium-range and battlefield nukes in his arsenal, to make it happen. An ICBM capable of hitting the US is just the trump card in Pyongyang’s hand.
Defence analyst David A. Ochmanek of the Rand Corporation said there is no doubt North Korea would go nuclear if a shooting war starts.
“Deterring Kim Jong-un from using nuclear weapons is like attempting to deter someone on death row with the threat of execution,” Ochmanek told an audience at the Modern Day Marine 2017 convention in September.
“Before it happens, he knows how this movie ends. It ends with him hanging from a rope,” he said, adding that Pyongyang has artillery that can pulverise “the greater metropolitan Seoul area with conventional and nuclear warheads, or chemical and biological weapons”.
Hence, the US threat to “utterly destroy” North Korea means nothing to a man who has nothing to lose.
While North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is small compared to the 1,600 or so very large-yield, very accurate and capable nuclear weapons that the US has, there’s no doubt that Pyongyang can inflict a horrific amount of damage on South Korea and Japan if push comes to shove. Estimates are that casualties could reach a million dead on the first day of hostilities. A single, 150-kiloton yield airburst weapon, detonated over Seoul, would vaporise more than 416,000 people instantly and injure 1.9 million more.
The Trump administration seems to be out of options, despite the US president’s tweets that “the situation will be handled!” A 10th round of sanctions? If they haven’t worked in the last 11 years (since 2006), it’s not likely they will work this time. US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley’s call for all nations to cut ties with North Korea following the latest missile test, was rejected outright by Moscow. Likewise, her call for China to turn off its pipeline supplying crude oil to North Korea was met with stoic refusal.
Militarily, the options aren’t all that great, either. For one, the US military presence in South Korea and Japan is not an effective enough bulwark against North Korean aggression. Current doctrine calls for pre-emptive strikes using surface- and submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles to take out critical warfighting infrastructure, such as C3 (command, control and communications) nodes, followed by subsequent waves as North Korea’s ability to fight is systematically degraded. This had worked to deadly perfection in Desert Storms I and II, and in the 2003 Iraq invasion. No reason why it won’t work against North Korea, right?
Wrong. The biggest problem is, it would take months for the US military to move its assets, men and materiel, and position them within striking distance. A jittery Pyongyang, with its finger on the nuclear trigger, will see it coming. In this day and age, the element of surprise is almost non-existent.
Another glaring difference is, unlike North Korea, Iraq did not have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons poised to strike US assets and her allies.
“If you attack them after they have nuclear weapons, it’s not a preventive war. It’s just plain old nuclear war,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, recently.
With the sabre-rattling already at fever-pitch, any move, even a whisker, to bolster the defences of America’s principal allies, could be seen as a prelude to war, and Jong-un, with his back already against the wall, might be forced to “use it, or lose it”, and unleash his nuclear arsenal, before they are destroyed.
With the spectre of death and destruction hanging over South Korea and Japan like a nuclear sword of Damocles, can the two countries, the region, and the United States, afford to risk it?
This Kajai award winner’s passion is fast jets and flying. When he’s not doing slow-speed, high-alpha
passes and four-point rolls, NST’s associate editor of production enjoys zooming around in mountain passes and hitting the twisties with the top down