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Are You Scared About North Korea’s Thermonuclear ICBM?

Are You Scared About North Korea’s Thermonuclear ICBM?

North Korea launched yet another satellite last week and it went right over the Super Bowl. Talk about godless commies. Pyongyang watcher Martyn Williams calculated that the North Korean satellite would be overhead during the big game and tweeted out that strange fact as a bit of a lark, but Breitbart felt the need to check with the FBI, who referred the “news organization” to the U.S. military.

The rocket that put the satellite in orbit had a new name written on it — Kwangmyeongseong or “Shining Star” — but it looked awfully familiar. Basically, it’s the same rocket that North Korea launched in 2006, 2009, and twice in 2012. These rockets have had various names, but in the United States we call them the same thing — the Taepodong-2. (Taepo is the name of a small village, or dong, near the missile test site where it was first observed.) And while North Korea says this rocket series is for putting satellites in orbit, the United States has long asserted that the Taepodong-2 is a de facto intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM).

The rocket launch itself isn’t terribly surprising. After all, North Korea has been renovating the Sohae Satellite Launching Station for several years now and pumping out propaganda about its space program. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t get neighbors in a tizzy.

As North Korea prepared to launch the latest Taepodong-2, Japan deployed an American-made PAC-3 missile defense battery in downtown Tokyo just as it had in 2012. (I was in Tokyo a few days before the launch. My friend, Kyle Mizokami, pointed out that the battery was just a short walk from my hotel in Shinjuku.) After the launch, South Korea and the United States announced that the two countries would discuss deploying another U.S. missile defense system known as Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea.

It might seem that deploying missile defenses is a sensible response to a missile launch, although if you know much about either PAC-3 or THAAD you’ll be scratching your head. After all, THAAD and PAC-3 are what is known as terminal defense systems — they defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles as they come back down to Earth. They have no capability to defend against a Taepodong-2.

Space launches, of course, don’t come back down. THAAD and PAC-3 would have fire at the missile as it going up, during its boost phase, a capability that neither possesses.

And, of course, if North Korean were to use the Taepodong-2 as an ICBM it would come back down, as the name suggests, on another continent (North America) not in South Korea or Japan. Nuclear warheads delivered by ICBMs enter the atmosphere at very high speeds, leaving THAAD and PAC-3 essentially helpless to defend against it. This is why the United States has invested in the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System located in Alaska, a system that has its own limitations.

So, if THAAD and PAC-3 are useless against a Taepodong-2 class threat, just what the heck is going on? Governments loathe looking helpless. When North Korea stacks a long-range rocket up on a pad and starts fueling it, reporters are bound to ask politicians and experts what the United States should do. Sure, every now and again, someone gets a wild hair up his ass and suggests blowing it up. Ash Carter was asked about his 2006 proposal to use a cruise missile strike to prevent North Korea from launching a rocket and shut down the conversation. “So that was then, and now is now,” he said. Generally, what people are thinking is “We aren’t going to do anything.” But god help them if you say that out loud.

So, a PAC-3 photo op in Shinjuku it is, followed by tough talk about the THAAD deployments in South Korea.

If you press knowledgeable officials about the fact that these missile defenses can’t intercept this particular missile, they’ll usually give you some nonsense about shooting down any debris that might go off course. Guess what happens to any debris from a missile? It continues along its ballistic trajectory. There really isn’t much chance of fragmenting debris falling into populated areas. And, in any event, the North Koreans seem to have taken care of that for us. There are reports that they detonated the first stage to prevent nosy busybodies from recovering the debris and seeing where the North Koreans are getting help. The South Koreans have still managed to pull up bits of the rocket, but so far the haul hasn’t been as impressive as it was following the December 2012.

Nor is THAAD much of a solution to North Korea’s most threatening capability — a short-range, solid-fueled missile based on Russia’s SS-21 called the KN-02 Toksa. Since 2014, North Korea has been testing an extended-range version of the missile that travels more than 120 miles. That’s a nice range if you want to rain death and destruction against Seoul, a mere 35 miles from the DMZ. Since the Toksa is solid-fueled, the missile is a permanent state of launch readiness, unlike North Korea’s liquid-fueled rockets, which must be fueled before launch.

The Toksa (or SS-21/KN-02, if you are trying to keep track) would actually fly under the THAAD engagement zone. In the 1990s, the Department of Defense studied theater missile defense architectures in the Asia-Pacific, specifically considering four THAAD batteries in South Korea. While those batteries might defend much of South Korea against medium-range ballistic missiles like the Nodong, defending against short-range threats requires different missile defense interceptors more like Israel’s Iron Dome system. (There is a second system called David’s Sling that would probably be just right.)

The United States, South Korea and Japan don’t have the slightest idea what to do about North Korea’s missile programs. But the funny thing is, we already have the right weapon in the toolkit: it’s called diplomacy. Unfortunately, it’s been 16 years since the United States actually tried to do something about North Korea’s ballistic missile program.

Actually, it wasn’t just us. The first people to try diplomacy to constrain North Korea’s missile programs were the Israelis. Israel’s Foreign Ministry was alarmed that North Korea was selling missiles to neighboring states like Iran. So someone had the inspired idea to make the North Koreans a better offer. The negotiations didn’t get very far, but the Israelis proposed various forms of economic assistance reported at a hard-to-believe $1 billion, including investments in a North Korean gold mine.

Ultimately, Mossad got wind of the plan and sent its own delegation to Pyongyang to torpedo it. Apparently competing delegations from the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Mossad ran into each other when they took the same flight out of Pyongyang. (The scene is fictionalized in James Church’s Bamboo and Blood.) There was a minor scandal back home, but the real problem was the United States found out about it.

Ultimately, the United States leaned on Israel to knock it off. After all, buying out the North Koreans might have helped Israel’s situation, but it would have left North Korea armed to the teeth with missiles, and a billion bucks to boot. The United States wanted a total elimination of the North’s missile programs, a sentiment shared by South Korea and Japan — at which most of the missiles were pointed. Still, there was a beautifully unsentimental quality to how the Israelis approached the situation.

Still, the Clinton administration thought it could do better. Over the course of the last few years of his presidency, Clinton sought an agreement in which North Korea would give up its long-range missile programs in exchange for assistance and free launches on foreign rockets. These negotiations involved a cast of characters, some of whom, like Wendy Sherman, would a decade and a half later play major roles in negotiating the Iran deal.

This was the process that led, ultimately, to Secretary of State Madeline Albright visiting North Korea — still the highest ranking official to visit the Hermit Kingdom. But Clinton ran out of time.

It is hard to say whether the United States and North Korea were close to a deal in 2000. On one hand, the sides were much nearer to an agreement than I think most people realize. The North Koreans were saying, behind the scenes, that if Clinton would just get on a plane to Pyongyang, everything could be worked out. But the North Koreans were also taking a hard line on missiles that were already deployed. In the end, I think Clinton was right to spend his remaining days in Northern Ireland not North Korea — although the Bush administration made a fateful error stepping back from the negotiations to conduct a policy review.

When Clinton left office, North Korea was observing a moratorium on launches of long-range missiles of any kind. That moratorium that held for a few years, but it ultimately fell victim to the collapse of the Agreed Framework. The moratorium ended with fireworks on July 4, 2006, when North Korea launched a number of missiles — including a Taepodong-2. The Bush administration made a half-hearted attempt to resume talks with North Korea over its nuclear programs, but never really talked about missiles

The Obama administration hasn’t made much of an effort to do anything about Pyongyang’s missiles either. There was the ill-fated “Leap Day Deal” in 2012, when North Korea agreed to meet a series of preconditions for disarmament talks to resume. One of those preconditions was that North Korea agree not to test long-range missiles “of any kind” but U.S. diplomats were asleep at the switch. They didn’t even notice that the North Korean version of the deal omitted the phrase “of any kind” — which was a kind of diplomatic allusion to space launches — and were caught totally flat-footed when the DPRK announced that it would celebrate the centenary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in April 2012 with a space launch. That launch failed, but the Leap Day Deal was dead.

There was something different about what happened in 2012 — and not just that North Korea tried again later that year and succeeded. During the 1990s, the North Koreans were offering to trade away a program that did not exist in exchange for other things. In 2012, as I wrote at Foreign Policy, U.S. diplomats had fundamentally misunderstood that North Korea was no longer interested in trading away its space program. Space launches are now part of the story that the North Korean government tells its citizens. They weren’t offering to come back to talks to give away their space program. They were offering to come back to talks so we might be more likely to let them keep it. That’s a big change.

So here is an unpopular opinion: How about we strike a deal in which the North Koreans get to keep their space launch program in exchange for a series of constraints? Oh, I know, you’ll get howls from the usual quarters about how we are legitimizing North Korea’s missile programs. I hate that argument. I don’t even know what that means. Sure, we won’t be able to send them sternly worded letters complaining about their active missile programs. It will be a real blow to the people who make State Department stationary. But no one thinks the latest round of sanctions means North Korea will give up its rockets.

In the real world, North Korea and Iran have very active missile programs. You don’t have to like it, but judging by the enormous investment in Pyongyang’s new satellite control and launch centers, the North Koreans don’t seem to be in a mood for bargaining away the space program. What might we realistically achieve?

First, we might get North Korea to agree to only “peaceful” space launches. There isn’t much difference, but we might seek to prevent North Korea from testing its road-mobile KN-08 ICBM and stop development of new solid-fueled missiles. Everyone will hate this recognition, but in 10 years I am pretty sure I will be emailing this column around reminding people back when I said we should live with the liquid-fueled rocket program to head off the solid-fueled one. (This is just a future “I told you so” paragraph.)

Second, and sort of pursuant to the first point, North Korea might agree not to test rockets in a ballistic missile mode, not to test reentry vehicles, and not to test missile defense penetration aids. North Korea can probably build crude casings for its nuclear warheads that can survive the heat of reentering the earth’s atmosphere, but but these would have real limitations. They would probably be inaccurate and might slow down when reentering the atmosphere. With a little luck, a terminal defense like THAAD or PAC-3 might have a shot at them. If North Korea can develop much better reentry vehicles and penetration aids to defeat missile defenses, our task gets harder. And perhaps most importantly, North Korea is likely to sell such technologies to other countries like Iran.

Third, North Koreans would have to abide by guidelines that bar the export of missiles and missile-related technologies. (I am not suggesting we let North Korea in the Missile Technology Control Regime that publishes guidelines for missile-related exports, but rather that we insist they adhere to the guidelines from outside, as China does.) I have my doubts about whether North Korea would really agree to such a thing, but I wouldn’t mind trying to slow down the bustling missile trade between Iran and North Korea.

Frankly, I think North Korea will probably cheat on such a deal, but I am not sure it matters. I am always for kicking the can down the road. If we can slow North Korea’s development of various missile capabilities, that would be worth the sort of things we usually offer in negotiations — a high-level meeting or two, nutritional assistance, limited forms of sanctions relief, and suitcases full of South Korean money. There is a lot I would not put on the table — starting with missile defenses since a primary goal would be trying to make the North Korean program more susceptible to the defenses we have. North Korea is going to be launching a lot of rockets in the next few years. It might be time to do the unthinkable and approach the situation with something short of maximalist demands for total surrender.

I realize this is a very unpopular sentiment. Letting North Korea launch a rocket into space without demarching them is unthinkable. The North Koreans might even think it a bit rude, like forgetting to send a Christmas card or thank-you notes after a wedding. But not demarching North Korea doesn’t really amount to a policy change because no one thinks another round of sanctions is going to change Pyongyang’s play. A tough statement from the Security Council is, in fact, doing nothing. Which is why it is easy. It doesn’t require admitting that our policy has failed or making painful compromises. In a strange way, it serves our short-term interests to wail ineffectually at each North Korea launches.

But it is our long-term interests that I worry about. If we continue to do nothing, North Korea will continue to test nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles. This story will end with a North Korean thermonuclear weapon on an ICBM — pointed at Los Angeles. And all the THAAD batteries in South Korea won’t matter one bit.

Photo credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images