If you’ve been keeping up with any form of news recently, you’ve most likely heard about the stark downfall of what can hardly be called relations between the United States and North Korea. What can safely be described as a modern day Cold War seems likely to turn hot at any minute. As both countries seem to be preparing for combat, here is what you need to know.
1. North Korea’s Missiles are Most Likely Capable of Reaching the US
Although nobody knows for sure, experts theorize that the Hwasong-14 missiles, tested by North Korea in July, are capable of hitting several major cities in the United States. The startling progress in the regime’s nuclear program is due to the development of a new missile engine which has proven itself to be far more powerful than its predecessors. Despite several other challenges North Korea is still faced with, the strength possessed by this new engine makes their missiles undeniably more reliable.
While these missiles now have the power to put the US mainland in reach, a number of things still remain to be seen; one of which is North Korea’s notoriously bad aim. According to the New York Times, states with nuclear programs decades in the making “can launch ICBMs whose warheads will hit target areas roughly 200 meters wide.” The article goes on to state that North Korea’s accuracy lies somewhere between 3 and 5 kilometers, or 2 to 3 miles. The Times quotes missile defense expert Ian Williams, saying “that’s good enough if you’re aiming at a city.” He then continues, expressing that “it would probably be insufficient to reliably take out a hardened target like a military installation.”
North Korea claims to be developing a hydrogen bomb, but these assertions remain unconfirmed.
2. Even with the ability to reach the US, North Korea still faces a multitude of problems
On top of the issues regarding accuracy previously described, other challenges still stand in the regime’s way of posing a significant threat to the United States. The fact that their missiles can go the distance during a test does not mean they will hold up with an actual nuke strapped to the warhead. The regime claims that the July 28th test is accurate to a Hwasong-14 boasting a hefty nuclear payload, but there is no way to know if this is true.
Analysts believe that North Korea does have the ability the miniaturize its nuclear weapons so that they will fit in nose cone of an ICMP, but it is impossible to know if they can successfully test a missile containing one. The problems of weight and accuracy still present themselves, as well as the possibility of the missile burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry, as several others of their missiles have. According to CNN, if the assertions made about the July 28th test is true, “North Korea would be able to launch a reliable nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile by early 2018.”
Getting past the United States’ missile defense systems is obviously also an issue. Nobody can predict what will happen in the event of an actual nuclear attack from North Korea, but these defenses unfortunately do not have an impressive track record, with The Guardian reporting that the United States’ ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) only struck its target in 9 out of 17 tests conducted over the last 18 years. The most recent test, however, meant to simulate the interception of an ICBM, was successful. It was the first test done in the last three years, and despite its success, it does not guarantee protection from North Korea’s missiles. It is still important to note that GMD is not the only way the US can protect against missiles.
3. The Immediate Threat is Not to the US mainland
North Korea poses a far greater threat to US controlled territory in the surrounding area as well as our allies, Japan and South Korea. North Korea made a direct threat to US controlled island of Guam earlier this year. The island is home to several US military bases and is well in range of some of North Korea’s missiles.
As of right now, Japan appears to be facing the most legitimate threat. Just yesterday, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over northern Japan. In response to this, South Korea conducted a live fire drill that included the launching of a missile capable of hitting the North Korean airfield where their latest launch is believed to have originated from.
If North Korea decides to strike Guam, Japan, or South Korea, the likelihood of World War III breaking out are all but certain.
4. The United States Has an Extraordinary Advantage Against North Korea
The nuclear capabilities possessed by the United States dwarf those held by North Korea. The US Air Force currently possesses a staggering 450 ICBMs. CNN described America’s firepower when compared to that of North Korea as “overwhelming.” The US could turn Pyongyang into a crater in a heartbeat, but doing so would result in the deaths of thousands of civilians. Similarly, a nuclear strike on North Korea would put South Korea and Japan at severe risk of casualty and all but guarantee devastating collateral damage.
A strike against America or our allies would be suicide for North Korea, but it is no secret that Kim Jong-Un is incredibly unstable. Despite the fact that an attack carried out by the regime would certainly result in their destruction, there is no way of knowing if he would forego that knowledge in an attempt to put his power on display.
5. The United States is Quickly Losing Patience With North Korea
The United Nations Security Council has slapped sanction after sanction on North Korea in hopes of forcing them to shut down their nuclear program, and all it seems to be doing is making the regime angrier. In blunter terms, it is not working. The US is running out of options.
A preemptive strike is a possibility, but it is a bad idea. A preemptive strike would likely cause North Korea’s allies to respond in kind. More sanctions are a possibility, but they are clearly not working. Negotiations are a possibility, but it is not likely they will happen. President Trump stated that he will not negotiate with North Korea so long as their nuclear program is still in play, and it is no secret that Kim Jong-Un will do everything in his power to keep the program up and running. According to CNN, some analysts believe the US should settle for a freeze, meaning North Korea will halt production and testing of future nuclear weapons, but will be allowed to keep the weapons they are currently in possession of. This choice puts the US and our allies between Scylla and Charybdis
With Nikki Haley stating that Kim Jong-Un is “begging for war,” it seems like this situation is heading down a very predictable road. As it stands, President Trump has been exploring a strategy known as peaceful pressure, which would, as CNN puts it, “build a global coalition to squeeze North Korea’s revenue and isolate it diplomatically so it will eventually put its missiles on the negotiating table.”
Ideally, the strategy of peaceful pressure will pay off and North Korea will come to their senses. Ideally, nobody will get hurt. Ideally, the situation will one day be defused. At the present moment, though, it just doesn’t seem likely.