The Panic Over North Korea

I’ve been bemused at all the sound and fury over yesterday’s DIA report. I pointed out on Twitter that there’s a lot more to a threat than a nuclear weapon, even a miniaturized one, and a rocket (we don’t even know that it’s a missile, which requires accurate guidance) that is a theoretical ICBM. The news reports keep saying that they’ve “developed” one, but part of development is testing and successful demonstration. I’ve been thinking about writing an explainer, but Tom Nichols beat me to it.

I’ve noted in the past that in order to prevent them from getting the capability, we may have to shoot down their tests. We can’t stop them from testing their bombs, but we can stop them from testing their missiles. The risk in that is whether they would view it as sufficiently provocative to start to bombard Seoul, which would end well for no one, but least of all them.

39 thoughts on “The Panic Over North Korea”

  1. I don’t doubt that Kim wants a nuclear missile arsenal, and if left alone, one day he will get one. (ICBMs and warheads are both sixty-year-old technology, after all).

    In the meantime… my Seattle hotel room is about a block from the harbor. North Korea has lots of fishing boats. If one were to sail up to the waterfront and detonate, I can’t see how that damages Seattle much less than a missile.

    1. Bill Whittle has a response to Hillary’s debate response to Trump regarding “blowing Iranian boats out of the water” that relates to this.

      Instapundent even reminds us that Bill Clinton said basically the same thing as Trump (which the media is going nuts over) with regard to NK and our response to NK threats.

      The only way to stop nukes is to end those that would use them first.

      Bombing Japan was not a war crime as the idiots in the media allege. Period.

      Undermining Trump on this is exactly what will get us into a WW1 (not a typo) situation.

      1. They went bonkers the same way over Reagan, who they pompously admonished was being unnecessarily provocative with the USSR. What they want is essentially appeasement, i.e., feeding the crocodile, hoping it will eat them last.

    2. And since North Korean agents have conducted smuggling, kidnapping and assassination operations across Asia for decades we know they can place a miniaturized bomb where they want it.

        1. It’s known that the North Koreans have midget submarines and have sent agents to Japan this way. What makes you think they couldn’t smuggle a bomb if they wanted to?

  2. On another line of thought…

    …we should stop doing, however, is talking about abandoning our commitments in Korea…

    When Trump says countries should defend themselves he is not abandoning commitment. What happens when countries take responsibility for their own defense is they make the aggressor’s calculations more difficult and hesitant to act.

    We’ve have also got to be careful about assuming NK a rational actor or not. We have to successfully deal with him whichever the truth.

    South Korea and others can’t just be passive about this. They need to have civil defense plans ready for the worst. Korea should be reunified.

  3. Another thing that’s being blown up out of proportion is the destructive power of an atomic bomb 🙂 They’re not nearly as destructive as most seem to believe and missing a target by a couple of km is a big deal. Even countries with advanced ICBMs like the US struggle to get the accuracy of the Hiroshima bomb (missed by a couple hundred meters). It’s unlikely Kim could get more than about 20kT on his missile and equally unlikely the missile has circular error probability of better than a few km.

    So if he targeted downtown LA with a 20kT device and instead hit Dodger stadium a couple km from downtown the number of deaths and injuries drop dramatically. The worst effects of a weapon that size only cover about 5km diameter. I wouldn’t even have a broken window at my old place in Redondo Beach. But wow, can you imagine traffic heading out of town on the 10 freeway?

    1. Latest estimate is that NK will have a thermonuclear weapon in 6-18 months. Then we’re talking megatons, not kilotons.

      1. I doubt they could put a megaton device on a their road-mobile ICBMs or SLBMs that could hit the US. I don’t think it has enough throw-weight.

    2. The hard figures are moot, though, aren’t they? Does it matter whether 20,000 or 2,000,000 are killed when the headline reads NUCLEAR ATTACK ON AMERICAN SOIL? The political realities won’t hinge on the magnitude of the destruction but on the brazenness of the act. We’ll of course nuke them back and then all heck will break loose.

      1. Absurd to think we would have a policy of absorbing nuclear attacks just like it is absurd to think we would have a policy of just letting terror attacks happen.

  4. I don’t get why people are dismissive. Not too long ago people were dismissive they could launch a rocket, now they can. Their current state of progress was dismissed as being impossible for them to achieve, or that it would take many more decades, yet here we are.

    People have treated China the same way and look at all they have done that people once said was impossible for them.

    The USA is the greatest country on the Earth but that doesn’t mean we should be complacent or irrationally contemptuous of the capabilities of other human beings. Ego shouldn’t lead to underestimating an opponent. True in sports. True in business. True in life. True in warfare.

  5. Regarding shooting down their missile tests: My worry would be that it would just reveal to Kim that he should concentrate on other ways of delivering a nuke — container ship to the port of LA, for example. If we actually have the capability of shooting down a missile, maybe we should wait until they fire one in anger?

    Not out of charity or forbearance, but just to keep our powder dry, as it were.

      1. If we want to take the chance that we might miss…

        Well, there is that, of course. And if we try to shoot down a test missile and fail, that will tell us something very important — though it will tell Kim the same thing.

        I suppose its pollyanna to suppose that Kim would put all his eggs in the ICBM basket whether we let him test them or not.

  6. Rand, I think you’ve missed a few things in the open literature. The missile test that has everyone in such a tizzy landed in the Sea of Japan, yes. And it was they payload that landed there. 40 minutes after launch.

    That’s an ICBM, and it has the ability to hit anywhere in the continental United States.

    Further, the leak from DIA disclosed that the Norks have 60 bombs. They can do an awful lot of damage with 60 bombs and a 10% success rate.

    They don’t even need to have the warhead land in the US. A detonation approximately over the center of CONUS, at an altitude of 200 or so nautical miles, would generate so much damage from EMP that our civilization would be in genuine danger of collapse. That doesn’t take city-busting accuracy.

    1. That’s an ICBM, and it has the ability to hit anywhere in the continental United States.

      Sure, from a total impulse standpoint. There’s a lot more to it than that, at least if you want it to land someplace in particular.

      They don’t even need to have the warhead land in the US. A detonation approximately over the center of CONUS, at an altitude of 200 or so nautical miles, would generate so much damage from EMP that our civilization would be in genuine danger of collapse.

      Maybe, but it seems unlikely, given the yield of those bombs.

      1. Yeah the guidance is a major issue. The pictures the North Koreans have shown basically suggest their missile and the warhead aren’t going to be especially accurate. But they have all the other basic technologies nailed down. The only major issue they have, other than guidance, is their long range missile needs to be launched from a prepared site. But like they’ve demonstrated the prepared site doesn’t need to be that complicated and these sites wouldn’t be easy to spot.

      2. They’ve already put at least one satellite into LEO, Rand. That’s all the G&C accuracy demonstration they need. It was all the Soviets needed to panic our defense establishment when they launched Sputnik.

        They’re obviously using plutonium pits, which means that simple fusion boosting can be used to push the yield over 100 kt. It doesn’t take a Starfish Prime to generate huge, damaging EMP..

        1. It’s a lot easier to put a satellite into (some) LEO than it is to hit a target on the ground (after entry). Do we know what orbit they intended to put it in, and how good their injection was? I don’t think so. But yeah, maybe they can EMP us.

  7. Whatever we do needs to be decisive and could happen quickly, but will our CinC’s orders be ignored?

    McCain and all those talking like him are on a world stage undermining the president which is aide and comfort to our enemies. This is the textbook definition of sedition.

    1. Trump should go to congress before going to war. He isn’t Obama, even if similar in many ways, and it would be nice to do something this important by the book without reading between the lines for once.

  8. There are only two ways I see of successfully dealing with this situation:

    A) Invasion of NK. Maybe, with stealth bombers, we could disrupt their missile launch facilities before they could even react. With their top-down military command and control, we could sweep through and establish control in short order.

    Downside: Risk of confrontation with China

    B) Starve them out. This requires getting China to yank their leash hard. Why would China do this, when having NK keep us and others in the region off-balance serves their strategic goals?

    I think we should encourage Japan and South Korea to nuke up themselves. They could do it in short order. That most decidedly does not serve China’s strategic interests, and they will fall over themselves calling NK to heel.

    That seems to work for me. Does anyone out there have a differing view of the efficacy?

    1. I suspect that our military could do a better than expected job dealing with NK but how long would it take to build up what is needed or is everything in place now?

      Pretty much every military encounter in my lifetime was preceded by people saying the USA would get their clocks cleaned and then we put on a show of how to clean a clock. Our military problems have not been in taking down countries but in doing something with those countries after the fact.

      Having our allies nuke up is the only logical option other than getting NK to give up nukes, which doesn’t appear will happen short of war. So no war means escalation in layered missile defense, nuclear weapons, and other military equipment.

      1. I’m pretty sure China would be horrified by the idea of a nuclear armed Japan, and proliferation in their neighborhood generally. As long as they are protected by the US umbrella, there is still a question of whether we would risk ourselves unleashing them on their behalf. Once they get them, themselves, then China is in very close range of adversaries with whom they have a history of mutual animosity, and with whom they are jockeying for position in the SCS.

        Hell, throw Taiwan into the mix to really get them off their duffs.

        1. China released a statement to the effect that they would only respond militarily to NK if NK attacked someone first and any first attack on NK would meet a Chinese response. Then something something about protecting China’s interests, which is apparently to let NK go nuclear and cause chaos.

          Maybe a nuclear triad (ROK, Taiwan, and Japan) would shake China out of it.

  9. I have been saying for a while that nothing Trump can do will change the media’s portrayal of him.

    Remember when he said that NATO members needed to pay their fair share and carry their own weight? The media said Trump wanted to abandon NATO and that he didn’t respect alliances or our international obligations.

    How is the media treating Trump on NK?

    When Trump stands up for our allies against a socialist dictator threatening to nuke everyone, Trump is portrayed as a warmonger bent on nuclear war by provoking NK who otherwise would be totally peaceful.

    If Trump didn’t use such colorful language, the DNC media would say he is weak. There is literally nothing he can do to change the narrative the DNC media chooses to put forward.

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