North Korea’s recent launch of a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is another dangerous step toward Pyongyang acquiring the capability to target nuclear warheads worldwide.
This article was first published on 19fortyfive.com on April 18, 2023. Click Here to read the original article.
North Korea’s recent launch of a solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is another dangerous step toward Pyongyang acquiring the capability to target nuclear warheads worldwide. More disturbing, however, is the tacit assumption that underlies most reactions to news of the launch: that it represents another inevitable step for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) to achieve an objective that American presidents said for decades was unacceptable.
It now seems that we are prepared to accept this outcome, but we’re just not very happy about it. The Biden administration, more concerned with their leader’s valedictory Ireland visit, managed a response only from a National Security Council deputy press officer. Likely setting a record for most cliches in a one-paragraph statement, the text condemned the launch as “a brazen violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” and asked North Korea “to come to the table for serious negotiations.” Just so Pyongyang didn’t miss the point, the statement added “[t]he door has not closed on diplomacy,” and the North should “choose diplomatic engagement.”
No wonder the Kim family’s hereditary Communist dictatorship dismisses Washington’s formulaic criticisms. These contain little more than bluster in answer to the DPRK’s continued march toward becoming a nuclear-weapons state. Is this what “unacceptable” means? History will record that repeated, unsuccessful American calls for negotiations have empowered nearly three decades of North Korean advances in nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile technology. No one in Pyongyang fears that any dispositive action will be taken to thwart their efforts.
Indeed, the very people who most vociferously advocated a diplomatic resolution of rogue-state nuclear proliferation programs now argue just as vociferously that it is too late to take serious action, and that we must accept the DPRK — and soon enough, Iran — as nuclear powers. First, it was too soon to consider the use of military force or regime change, and now it’s too late. Pyongyang and other nuclear aspirants benefit from this muddled thinking, knowing what they want even if we don’t, and single-mindedly pursuing their objectives while we worry about those poor, brazenly violated Security Council resolutions.
Fortunately, it is not yet too late. It remains highly likely that the North still cannot mate a nuclear device to one of its ICBMs, nor is there physical proof that a missile and weapons payload can reach this country. We do not know if Pyongyang has successfully developed re-entry vehicles that can sustain warhead integrity and reliability when their trajectories bring them back into Earth’s atmosphere, nor do we know whether the DPRK has sufficient targeting capabilities to actually hit what it is aiming for.
As Donald Rumsfeld frequently warned, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” and our level of uncertainty is high. But knowing, as we do, the complexity of the science and technology needed to fabricate deliverable nuclear weapons, we can have some confidence that North Korea’s threat is not yet fully realized. Of course, we cannot exclude that Pyongyang would simply place a nuclear device into one of its tramp steamers, sail to a U.S. port, and detonate it to considerable effect. Time is, as always, definitely not on our side.
But neither should we overestimate the strength of Kim Jong Un’s regime, economically or politically. Just weeks before last week’s Hwasong-18 launch, we saw new indications of the North’s efforts to assist Russia in its war against Ukraine. Incredibly, according to declassified intelligence, Moscow is offering to barter food with Pyongyang in exchange for artillery shells, showing how weakened both regimes are. Indeed, the DPRK’s food shortages are worsening, with unconfirmed reports of starvation and perhaps the worst levels of deprivation during Kim’s entire tenure.
Accordingly, when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol meets with Biden next week, the top agenda item should be to develop new and improved means of facilitating regime change in Pyongyang. That is one sure way to eliminate its nuclear program, not to mention liberating its oppressed citizens. Reinvigorating and stiffening the enforcement of existing sanctions and expanding the range of economic and political pressure directed toward toppling the regime will be key. There is no denying the difficulties involved in pursuing regime change, but they pale before the potentially devastating consequences of the DPRK using its nuclear weapons, or threatening and intimidating weak American presidents away from our historic commitment to defend the South. Given the current White House occupant, Yoon’s leadership will be key to developing any effective new policy. Clearly, if Seoul is not actively concerned about the human rights and long-term prospects of its fellow Koreans above the DMZ, it will be difficult to inspire others.
South Korea is demonstrating an increased awareness that Beijing’s growing threat to Taiwan, and more broadly in the Indo-Pacific, directly affects the peninsula. This will contribute to rising Asian support for a vigorous counter-DPRK policy, which Japan will certainly welcome. Therefore, increasing trilateral Tokyo-Seoul-Washington cooperation against the menace of China and North Korea must also be a top agenda item for the Biden-Yoon summit. The historical obstacles to closer South Korean-Japanese cooperation are well-known, but Yoon’s recent efforts with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida are promising, and they deserve full U.S. support.
One particularly important area is ongoing trilateral cooperation on missile defense, which recently resumed after a three-year break due to unrelated Tokyo-Seoul disagreements. America itself urgently needs to increase emphasis on national missile defense, further development of which would reduce, even if not completely eliminate, rogue-state threats of nuclear attack. Enhanced theater missile defense in East Asia, which amounts to national defense for South Korea and Japan, could pressure Pyongyang’s fragile economy just as Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative did to the collapsing Soviet economy, leading to its demise.
No one, least of all Kim’s regime, should harbor the misapprehension that America and its allies have grown indifferent to whether North Korea achieves deliverable nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding our manifest policy failures over the last 15 years, it is and always will be unacceptable for the DPRK to reach that goal.