Saturday, July 8, 2017

Scared About North Korea?

No matter how hard Americans may have tried to check out of the real world over this long holiday, their idylls were undoubtedly interrupted by the news that North Korea had successfully launched an intercontinental ballistic missile that could conceivably reach the U.S. If paired with a miniaturized nuclear warhead, it poses the greatest new threat to domestic security since the end of the Cold War. And, oh yeah, the guy with his hand on the launcher is a stone-cold nut job who reportedly likes killing close relatives with anti-aircraft guns.

OK, this is scary, but mostly in a theoretical sense. There remain lots of unanswered questions about the sophistication and reliability of the North Koreans' weapons, not to mention the odds that the dictator Kim Jong Un would sign his own death warrant by using a nuclear device on South Korea, Japan or the world's remaining military superpower. To get more concrete answers, I spoke with somebody who knows as much as anybody about the Hermit Kingdom's mysterious ways: Jeffrey Lewis -- or, as he is known to his more than 30,000 Twitter followers, @armscontrolwonk. Lewis is the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, writes for Foreign Policy, and oversees a lively blog on nonproliferation issues -- no, that is not an oxymoron -- at

I talked with Lewis about the latest North Korean achievement, the history and future of the regime's nuclear program, and what it's like to live in the heart of the fallout zone should Kim make good on his threat to turn the Pacific Coast into a "sea of fire." Here is a transcript of the discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: North Korea's successful ICBM launch seems to have surprised many "experts" in the commentariat, even given its previous progress with ballistic missiles. Yet you warned of this possibility in a blog post more than a year ago, and again after Trump was elected. Did you know something others didn't, or does this just reflect a failure of the cognoscenti to take the threat seriously?

Jeffrey Lewis: I've written two books on the history of China’s nuclear weapons program. The American reaction to Mao’s China and the bomb was pretty similar to the reaction to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program today. China’s goal, from the get-go in the 1950s, was to put a thermonuclear weapon on an ICBM that could reach the U.S. Americans had real trouble accepting that because it didn’t fit our image of a backwards, impoverished China. Of course, that was precisely why the Chinese did it. They had a different view of themselves and their future. It seems the same to me with North Korea. We think they are a joke. But I don’t see them laughing -- well, except in photos right after successful missile tests. They laugh plenty in those. (...)

TH: Having an ICBM is one thing, having a miniaturized nuclear warhead to put on it is another. Kim has bragged about mastering the technology, and released a (unintentionally hilarious) propaganda photo of himself standing next to their supposed device. Do you think he's lying? If so, how close are they?

JL: I don't have any doubt that North Korea has a compact fission device that fits on a ballistic missile. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests –- and if we look at the other nuclear powers, after five nuclear tests they were all capable of building compact nuclear weapons and/or well on their way to thermonuclear weapons. To go back to my point about China, the U.S. expressed the same skepticism about whether China could make a compact device small enough to fit on a missile. The Chinese responded by altering their nuclear test schedule so that their fourth nuclear test, in 1966, was a test of a live nuclear warhead on a real missile, which they fired across their country. The Chinese made their point. I hope the North Koreans doesn’t feel the need to do something similar and fly a nuclear-armed missile over Japan. (...)

TH: Experts say that if the ICBM was put on a more traditional angle, it could have flown 4,000 miles as opposed to the 600 or so it went before falling into the Sea of Japan. That would put all of Alaska in range if true. But you wrote the other day in the Daily Beast that it could possibly bring the continental U.S. into play as well. Tell us why, and whether the U.S. is taking that threat seriously enough.

JL: Well, there is a difference between the range the missile demonstrated last week, which was about 4,000 miles, and what the simulations we do at the Middlebury Institute suggest the missile may be capable of. My colleages, along with David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists, looked very closely at the launch of a new intermediate-range missile in May, as well as this one, trying to measure the missile and model its performance. It seems to me the North Korea cut the engines a bit early here, possibly so they did not overfly Japan. But they have been very clear their targets are in the continental U.S. -- the Pacific Fleet in San Diego, Washington, and lately New York City -- not Alaska. And our initial modeling of this missile suggests that it should be able to deliver a nuclear-weapon sized payload to most, if not all, those places. We’re still modeling away though.

TH: Which leads us to the question of what we do about it. The latest U.S. missile-defense test was a failure, as have the vast majority. Is the idea of a domestic shield -- the ability to "hit a bullet with a bullet" -- realistic, at least with today's technology? Is the money Congress wants put aside for studies of an East Coast shield just silly?

JL: Some missile defenses are a good investment, while others are not. The system that failed recently, the SM-3 Block IIA is, I think, still a really good investment -- although it is designed to deal with medium- and intermediate-range missiles and would be pretty helpless against an ICBM.

If we want to shoot down a North Korean ICBM headed for the U.S., we have to rely on the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system based in Alaska and southern California. The idea for a third site, possibly in the Northeast, came from a National Academies panel that was co-chaired by a friend of mine, the great Walt Slocombe. It is worth reading why Walt’s panel actually proposed adding a third site -- they concluded that the GMD system intended to defend the U.S. against a North Korean or Iranian ICBM needed to be completely redesigned, with new interceptors, new radars and a new concept of operations. They did not recommend adding a third site with existing technology, but rather suggested starting over almost at square one. That little detail sort of got overlooked.

by Tobin Harshaw, Bloomberg | Read more:
Image: AFP/Getty Images
[ed. See also: Trump’s Korea Policy is a Fast-Forward, Stupider Version of Bush’s]