“All I could think about was that I would die at the hands of a madmen—and there was nothing I could do to stop it.”
These words, expressed to me by a U.S. Navy active-duty sailor based in Hawaii, go to the heart of Saturday’s accidental warning of an inbound ballistic missile that most assumed would come from North Korea. And while it seems clear Pyongyang has the necessary technology to strike South Korea and Japan with nuclear fire (along with U.S. bases in East Asia, Guam, Alaska and Hawaii), there is evidence to suggest Kim might already have an even more sinister capability: the ability to kill millions of people in the U.S. homeland with a nuclear-armed long-range missile—right now.
Now, to be fair, this is a minority viewpoint in the U.S. national security community circles, but something at least some of the most senior U.S. defense officials have been saying for a few years now. However, there is evidence to suggest Kim Jong Un, the ruthless dictator of North Korea, might have the ability to put together at least a crude weapon that could deliver a blow to America thousands of times deadlier than anything we experienced on 9/11.
To understand how this is possible, let us explore for a moment the things Kim would need to strike our homeland and what he already has in place.
"If Kim’s missiles have the range we have seen ... He won’t be able to target buildings and be precise, but if he wants to throw a nuke at something the size of Los Angeles I bet he has crude tracking and targeting for something like that.”
First, we know that Kim has missiles with the necessary range to strike America. We know this through three long-range missile tests last year – two in July and one in November. This is the most difficult part of a nuclear weapons system to develop.
Next, according to a bombshell report in the Washington Post over the summer, U.S. intelligence officials revealed they believe North Korea can militarize a warhead.
Third, while there is debate whether Pyongyang has the targeting and tracking systems needed to guide a missile towards a U.S. city, there are those in the U.S. intelligence community who think he does. One explained to me just recently on background that, “If Kim’s missiles have the range we have seen—13,000 km ICBMs—I would say it seems very likely his tracking and targeting might very well be good enough to strike something as large as a U.S. city. He won’t be able to target buildings and be precise, but if he wants to throw a nuke at something the size of Los Angeles I bet he has crude tracking and targeting for something like that.” A retired U.S. intelligence official, also speaking on background, agreed with that assessment.
This is where things get tricky and the debate heats up—literally. Does Kim have the most critical component – vital heatshield technology – that would allow him to fire a long-range missile with a miniaturized warhead that can pass through the atmosphere and land on target? Many experts say no, however, there is at least one report back in 2017 that said yes, and that seemed to get lost in the dizzying amount of North Korea news.
In a report for The Diplomat, journalist Ankit Panda, a senior editor and seasoned Asia watcher, explained that according to a CIA assessment back in August:
“[B]ased on the two observed flight tests of the Hwasong-14 to date [the July ICBM tests], North Korea’s reentry vehicle technology is likely sufficiently advanced to pose no performance problem should the missile be fired at a minimum energy trajectory. The assessment of the reentry vehicle is supported by analysis of data “gathered from ground, sea, and air-based sensors” by the U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), one source told The Diplomat.”
To put it in simpler terms, if North Korea were to fire an ICBM not in a lofted, or near up and down manner, as it has been during testing, but in a normal trajectory at the United States, it should be able to survive its trip through the atmosphere and hit a target in the U.S. homeland. While Panda’s later reporting certainly details the difficulties Pyongyang is still having with its heatshield technology, especially on the Hwasong-15 tested in late November, he notes that “[T]he CIA-NASIC…suggested that it was more likely than not that the reentry vehicle exhibited satisfactory performance during the November 29 flight test.”
To put it in simpler terms, if North Korea were to fire an ICBM not in a lofted, or near up and down manner, as it has been during testing, but in a normal trajectory at the United States, it should be able to survive its trip through the atmosphere and hit a target in the U.S. homeland.
While the above is certainly not clear-cut proof, and raises more questions than answers, the above should serve as a warning of where North Korea’s nuclear program currently stands. With that said, have we reached the point where it is time to launch an attack to degrade or potentially even destroy this capability?
The challenge, as I have laid out on a few occasions in these digital pages, is that there is no silver-bullet to destroy North Korea’s nuclear or missile programs—without millions of people paying the ultimate price. Suppose, for example, North Korea has 40 nuclear weapons, and those weapons are scattered around the country, some in near-bombproof tunnels buried deep into the Earth. If Washington were to commence with a massive strike, the Trump administration would need to get every single nuclear weapon. Otherwise, Kim would have every incentive to strike back with whatever atomic arms he has left—and that says nothing about North Korea’s large stockpiles of short and medium range missiles, chemical weapons and 11,000-plus pieces of artillery pointed at Seoul.
Like it or not, there is no perfect solution to the challenge of North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons program—as there is no viable “military option” that is anything close to risk-free. Our best option, a mix of sanctions to limit the resources Kim can put into his nuclear program as well as diplomatic and economic isolation, is our best course of action, as imperfect as it is.