Stability in the home, office, army, country, or world is brought about by the expectation of a code of behavior that is reinforced by the clear and consistent application of rules. A system of incentive and disincentive buttresses the system – it is called discipline. When expectations are unclear, rules are inconsistently applied, discipline is not enforced, or threats are idle - the undisciplined grow emboldened. North Korea is the perfect example of the failure of this system.
North Korea is the size of Virginia with a population slightly more than New York State. Its gross domestic product is only two-thirds that of the state of Vermont. With that small economy it fields an active duty military larger than Russia’s and nearly as large as the United States,’ channeling nearly all of its resources to military power to the detriment of its civilians.
This otherwise inconsequential country is important for one reason only – it is now one of only nine nations in the world to possess nuclear weapons. It sets the example for others such as Iran.
The immediate focus of its program today is to miniaturize its weapons for missile delivery and to develop an inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that can threaten the continental U.S.
It is estimated to have 10-20 functional weapons today. Some experts say that its program has matured to the point where it may now be able to add a new bomb to its inventory every few months. The yields of the weapons it has developed and tested are double those of the Hiroshima bomb. It appears it is aiming for something much bigger - a hydrogen bomb – with 1,000 times the yield in the longer term.
With an estimated inventory of 1000 short and medium range ballistic missiles North Korea is estimated to have miniaturized some of its bombs and may be capable of launching them on short-range missiles against its immediate neighbors and U.S. forces in the region.
North Korea is close to joining the ranks of only six countries possessing inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and only five with stealthy submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM). The most recent SLBM launch on April 15th failed almost immediately after the missile exited the water.
The extent and diversity of the North Korean nuclear weapons and delivery programs are threat enough – but an unconventional delivery may be possible today upon a U.S. coastal city using some form of unconventional delivery from the sea or within a port.
The U.S. and U.N. have attempted to stop or slow the progress of the North Korean nuclear weapons and missile programs through diplomacy and sanctions to include fifteen U.N. resolutions since the 1990s. Those efforts have failed as North Korea ignored, violated or secretly circumvented every resolution and agreement.
U.S. leadership has seemingly sleepwalked through an era of ever expanding capabilities and growing bellicosity from North Korea for decades when attentiveness, resolve and strength were needed. A desire to avoid confrontation has in the end resulted in a far greater danger.
The Trump Administration is ratcheting up the pressure both on North Korea directly and on its ally and neighbor – China. In its latest action on April 25th the Ohio Class missile submarine USS Michigan (SSGN-272) surfaced in South Korea to send a political message.
The good news is that China may finally see that support of North Korea is contrary to its broader interests. The Chinese suspended coal imports from North Korea in February. There is some indication China is considering reducing vital oil exports to North Korea as well. The Trump Administration’s actions are undoubtedly adding to pressure on China, but China avoids major action for fear of a collapse of the regime that will result in a refugee crisis on its border and other unknown consequences.
A concerted effort by the U.S. and China to pressure the regime through slightly tougher sanctions and military intimidation will not work against North Korea. The Hermit Kingdom has linked its survival and status directly to nuclear weapons. The probability sanctions and negotiations will end the program is very low unless the sanctions are crippling enough or covert and military actions so effective that the regime sees continuing the program as pointless or it is overthrown by popular revolt or a coup.
Are the U.S. and China willing to impose economic sanctions so severe the civilian population, out of starvation and desperation, revolts? Is the U.S. or China capable of hacking North Korean systems so as to render them inconsequential and thus so useless the North Koreans abandon the program? Is the U.S. or China able to undertake a covert action or precision military action that results in a coup and installation of a more moderate regime? Unless the answer to one of these questions is yes these latest efforts will fail and we will face a North Korea with a hydrogen bomb and ICBMs in the not too distant future.
The severe actions that may work to force an abandonment of the program may also result in panicked desperate actions by Kim Jung Un. Military planners always include in their analysis a section titled: “The Enemy Gets a Vote.” Could Kim Jun Un order a nuclear weapon aboard a neutral flagged ship to enter San Francisco Bay? Do they have adequate hacking and direct action capabilities to disrupt the power grid of the West Coast? He is not powerless to our actions.
The failure to nip this threat in the bud over the past three decades has resulted in an untenable situation. The risks have never been as great and will only get worse if unchecked. It can only be addressed now by cooperative U.S. and Chinese action.
While the hands are played out – hope that the missile was hacked.