Is a Nuclear North Korea Inevitable?

In a meeting with President Trump last November, President Obama described North Korea as our country’s biggest national security threat. Given that Kim Jong Un has threatened to carry out a nuclear strike on our nation for years and has failed to follow through, Obama’s concern seems overblown. However, the “hermit kingdom” has recently upgraded its weapons system and is becoming the imminent danger many fear. Unfortunately, we may now be powerless. It is probably too late to take decisive action without accepting an enormous death toll, even though passivity will bind us to an intolerable future.

A country needs three technologies for nuclear capabilities: the ability to make nuclear weapons, the technology to develop missiles with sufficient range to strike their targets, and the capacity to miniaturize a bomb to fit on a missile. In each of these, North Korea has gone from unimpressive to terrifying in just a few years. Most significantly, in July, it demonstrated that it has intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). On America’s Independence Day, the North Koreans launched their first ICBM, which missile expert David Wright claimed “would not be enough to reach the lower 48 states or the large islands of Hawaii, but would allow it to reach all of Alaska.” Only a few weeks later, they ran another test. According to Wright, that missile might be able to reach as far as New York City. Lack of range has long impeded North Korea’s nuclear goals, but in a single month they surpassed their previous record twice.

In addition to extending the range of their missiles, the North Koreans have also been boosting the power of their weapons. This month, they apparently tested a hydrogen bomb, a weapon far more powerful than the fission-based atomic weapons they constructed previously. America’s nuclear commander John E. Hyten assumed that this report was accurate due to findings by seismologists indicating the bomb had a yield of at least 100 kilotons. This is far more powerful than the one tested in 2016. The range of North Korea’s missiles and the potency of their bombs mean little unless they can actually get the bombs onto the missiles. While most experts agree that the nation is currently unable to mount the bombs, the rate of progress suggests that this final step is probably not too far off. The New Yorker magazine summarizes the current state of affairs: “North Korea has between twenty and sixty usable nuclear warheads, and ICBMs capable of hitting targets as far away, perhaps, as Chicago. It has yet to marry those two programs in a single weapon, but American intelligence agencies estimate that it will achieve that within a year.” If such predictions are accurate, North Korea is on the verge of gaining the power to kill millions of Americans and destroy several of our cities at the push of a button. And in the future, North Korea has the capacity to enlarge its total stockpile of weapons and replace weaker old ones with new hydrogen bombs even if there is no significant scientific progress.

This dire situation may tempt the United States to push for an immediate, preemptive response to take the weapons out before they can harm us. The New York Times recently examined our options. The possibilities are a limited strike, a comprehensive strike or an all-out war. Sadly, the author concluded that limited action would be too weak to matter and a comprehensive strike would likely force America and our allies to accept massive casualties. As the author of the piece, Max Fisher, put it: “Strikes short of war would risk deepening, rather than altering, this calculus. Strikes that lead to war would risk exactly the nuclear exchange they are meant to forestall.”

Our defensive options aren’t much better. Despite spending decades and billions of dollars on nuclear defense, our current technology is only partially effective. The anti-missile systems are not sufficient to defend us from multiple missiles. Furthermore, efforts to force China to keep its ally under control are pointless. As James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, has stated: “Whether it’s pressuring, threatening, negotiating, or trying to leverage China, everybody’s tried all of that—and it’s not working.” We should continue improving missile defense, talking to China, and searching for military strategies, but there is little reason to be optimistic about any of these paths.

Because of the advanced nature of North Korea’s nuclear program and the futility of both offensive and defensive measures, some have begun to ask whether we must simply accept a nuclear North Korea. Given that one of the country’s representatives just spoke of reducing “the US mainland into ashes and darkness,” this, too, sounds like a dangerous option. In any case, barring major unforeseen events, a truly nuclear North Korea will arrive sooner than we think. If this occurs, we must hope that Kim Jong Un is saner than he appears.