North Korea on the US Independence Day claimed it successfully test-launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The missile flew for 40 minutes a total distance of 580 miles and landed in the Sea of Japan. Its altitude is what led some to conclude that it was an ICBM. Others say it may only be a less capable intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM).
Some analysts believe that if this was an ICBM that it marks a potential game-changing development in the ongoing standoff between North Korea and the rest of the world. The potential range of the missile put all of Alaska at risk. Over at least the past two decades North Korea has blustered and threatened its way to concessions. The first coming while Bill Clinton was president.
Whenever North Korea feels that the sanctions are having an effect or it wants more recognition as a member of the nuclear “club” such disturbing tests—missiles or nuclear weapons—are stepped up. The traditional response dating back to the 1990s has been some form of face saving concession by the US and the South Koreans.
This year the “tests” have exceeded in number, and failures, more than at any other time. The new ‘leader” wants acceptance.
The crux of the issue is that North Korea is holding some 20+ million inhabitants of Seoul hostage. Their missiles and dug-in artillery north of the Demilitarized zone can easily range and cause massive destruction and loss of life in Seoul.
This hostage situation makes the development of a non-appeasing strategy much more difficult. In essence what is needed is a strategy whose objective is regime change and eventual unification of the Koreas. (This assumes that South Korea is willing to pay the price to feed, clothe and house the peasants of the North who are continually in almost famine conditions.)
The military components of such a strategy must be disarming, decapitating, and a surprise. Simultaneously defenses must be such that any attack after the initial disarming attack are capable of limiting damage to Japan and South Korea.
Before contemplating such an attack diplomatic efforts are continuing, but is the north paying attention? President Trump has sought China’s assistance and the Chinese have at least played lip service to the request and did turn back North Korean shiploads of coal. (China is North Koreas window for outside goods and the principal consumer of North Korea’s coal.) The China card is a difficult one to play given the areas of disagreement between the US and China (the South China Sea dispute comes to mind.)
Beyond and in addition to additional sanctions (sanctions generally only hurt the people and not the leadership or the military and are thus of limited utility) and pressure from China there are some limited military options which might prove to provide some leverage.
Can the US intercept missile launches from North Korea early (during initial burn and before the missile gains significant altitude)? Such an intercept would deny the North Koreans much needed data on the performance of the missile. Are the North Koreans vulnerable to cyber attacks? Can their media and some basic command and control capabilities be “turned off”?
The point is to show restraint while taking actions to gain leverage.
Let me know what you think we can and should do.
In the next article we will apply the concept of multi-domain operations to some of the opening engagements of a war on the Korean peninsula.