Should We Be Afraid Of North Korea

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North Korea Opinion North Korean threats against the US: how worried should you be? Katharine HS Moon Warnings of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by Kim Jong-un have left many Americans jittery. Here’s what he is and isn’t capable of A TV at Seoul railway station shows footage of the missile launch conducted by North Korea on 3 March 2016. Photograph: Ahn Young-joon/AP North Korea has raised the prospect of a pre-emptive strike with nuclear weapons in an official statement.

However, there is no imminent danger from North Korea to the US mainland. Our military personnel and facilities in the Asia-Pacific and our allies such as South Korea, Japan, and Australia, are more vulnerable. But US military capabilities, both conventional and nuclear, are potent forms of deterrence against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). If we worry, it should be about the DPRK’s ceaseless efforts to develop more advanced nuclear technology and other weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical ones.

So how many weapons do they have? The DPRK possesses about 1,000 missiles of various capabilities, but only their short-range (1,000km or less) and medium-range ballistic missiles (1,000-3,000km) are accurate enough to attack cities, ports and military bases. Estimates of the number of nuclear warheads range from 10 to 16. Are their missiles capable of reaching the US? Yes and No. North Korea may be able to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (5,500km), but lacks key technical requirements for a successful missile attack – such as re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and accuracy of targeting.

Its missile technology has improved considerably since 2009, including progressive efforts to miniaturize warheads and increase payloads (explosive power). Its long-range missiles can hypothetically hit the west coast of the US, but successful flight-testing of such a weapon system has not occurred. The rocket launch in February 2016 used the Taepodong-2, but the rocket’s later stages did not reach the altitude required for an ICBM, climbing to 466-500km above the Earth; a peak altitude of more than 1,000km is needed for a successful attack.

Even if the range and altitude were sufficient, a re-entry vehicle would have to survive hitting the atmosphere at roughly 16,000 miles per hour in order to do damage. As of yet, there is no evidence that North Korea has such capabilities. Would they be able to get past missile defense systems? Even if they did launch a missile, it would probably be intercepted quite quickly. Four of the six US command centers (Stratcom, Norad, Northcom and Pacom) that oversee ballistic missile defense system are prepared to detect and intercept strikes from North Korea.

There are 30 ground-based interceptor missiles stationed in Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg air force base, California. There is a push to increase this to 40, but questions over their reliability remain. In the Asia-Pacific, the US has four Aegis (ballistic missile defense) capable ships and the AN/TPY-2 radar in Japan. In addition, the recent decision to permanently station the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in Guam is a direct response to North Korea’s provocations.

Formal consultations with South Korea over THAAD deployment in that country are now under way, while Australia has also welcomed greater cooperation with the US on missile defense systems. Why is North Korean doing this? North Korea is doing this mainly as a response to sanctions. The rhetoric, “nuclear weapons to be ready at any time”, is North Korea’s far-fetched attempt to persuade the world that they have successfully miniaturized a nuclear warhead, which is highly doubtful.

More so than the international audience, the statement is directed towards North Korean citizens, in an attempt to bolster support for the leadership. At the same time, North Korea is flexing its muscles in the face of joint US-South Korean military exercises, which are held annually around this time. It is a “tradition” for the DPRK to lash out in some form to protest against the military might of that bilateral alliance.

Described as being record-breaking in terms of scale, this year’s joint exercise includes more than 90,000 South Korean and 15,000 US troops (four times the number of US troops used last year). North Korea also regularly conducts tests in order develop their nuclear and missile technology. In 2014 alone, the UN counted at least 13 ballistic missile tests from various locations inside the DPRK.

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The common thinking is that North Korea’s nuclear programme poses a threat to global peace and diverts economic resources from an impoverished population. North Korean leaders are depicted in the Western media as a cabal of madmen who won’t be satisfied until Washington, Seoul, or some other enemy city is turned into a “sea of fire”. Successive US governments have used a range of carrots and sticks to entice or pressure the North Korean leadership to give up its nuclear programme.

The North’s missile launches and nuclear tests in 2016 make plain that these efforts have failed; in short, the West has to accept that it is now a nuclear power and focus instead on limiting the risks a nuclear North Korea presents. But it also pays to consider what sounds like a perverse question: could a North Korean bomb actually benefit both the country’s people and the world at large? First, a reality check: the North Korean nuclear programme is less a madcap scheme than a clear and deliberate strategy.

Its leaders have closely watched what’s happened to other countries that have backed away from nuclear arsenals, and two in particular: Ukraine and Libya. Ukraine gave up its massive Soviet-era nuclear arsenal in 1994 when it signed the Budapest Memorandum with Russia, the US and the UK, on whose terms it traded nuclear weapons for a formal reassurance to respect its sovereignty; 20 years later, Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula, and a pro-Russian insurgency in the east is still rumbling.

As for Libya, Muammar Gaddafi renounced his weapons of mass destruction programme as part of an opening to the West only to be forcibly removed from power by the same countries some eight years later. Along with the Iraq War, these spectacles taught the North Korean regime that it’s hard for a relatively small, isolated country to survive without the military hardware to guarantee it. Pyongyang has duly shown great diplomatic skill in drawing out nuclear negotiations, buying itself both time and financial aid as its programme moves forward.

In 2016 alone, it tested two nuclear weapons, sent a satellite into orbit, and made advances in both submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology. In his New Year’s address at the start of 2017, Kim Jong-un emphasised that the country’s nuclear forces are central to its self-defence capability: “We will defend peace and security of our state at all costs and by our own efforts, and make a positive contribution to safeguarding global peace and stability.

” The long view A nuclear North Korea obviously worries the international community for several reasons. Kim might in theory actually use nuclear weapons on his enemies, a threat he periodically makes. His country’s admission into the “nuclear club” might spark a regional arms race. It could share or sell technologies of mass destruction to hostile states. And then there’s the danger of a full-blown nuclear accident with all the attendant regional repercussions.

These risks aren’t trivial, but they should be viewed with some perspective. For starters, a nuclear attack from Pyongyang appears highly unlikely. The government is fully aware that it would incur an overwhelmingly destructive military response from the US and South Korea. It’s also worth remembering that while the programme has been underway for 25 years, there is still no sign of a regional nuclear arms race.

As for proliferation or accidents, these demand not isolation but co-operation and communication. Keeping Pyongyang cut off from the world will not help; if its nuclear facilities are to be kept safe and their products not used to bring in illicit foreign revenue, they must be properly monitored rather than kept hidden. North Korean soldiers prepare for a relay race. EPA/KCNA Meanwhile, a nuclear North Korea might well see fit to downsize its enormous and costly conventional military forces, which are among the world’s largest.

As it transitions away from what it calls a “Military First” policy to something more deterrent-centric, it makes sense to encourage it to reduce its conventional military forces. (Better still, if it did, heavily-armed South Korea might follow suit.) With a smaller conventional military to maintain, Pyongyang might be able to channel scarce state funds away from defence and towards raising the standard of living for ordinary North Koreans.

This point is in line with its stated strategy of growing the economy and developing the nuclear deterrent in parallel, a policy known as the Byungjin line, and with Kim’s mooted five-year economic plan. His plans demand dramatic shifts in North Korean state policy, which could destabilise the regime. The calculation is that the security provided by nuclear capabilities would offset the shock of sudden domestic change.

Most paradoxically of all, North Korea’s nuclear “arrival” might make for a positive turn in inter-Korean relations. International efforts to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear programme isolated the country, in turn greatly undermining the chances of a rapprochement with the South, whose efforts to defrost relations have lately come to nothing. The pace of the North’s nuclear development meant that the now-impeached President Park’s policy of reconciliation – “Trustpolitik” – was doomed before it began.

As far as Pyongyang is concerned, its militaristic strategy has worked: It has kept the Kim government internally stable, the population dependent on the government, and the country’s enemies at bay. Accepting the country’s nuclear status, rather than trying to head it off with sanctions and threats, could bring it back to the diplomatic bargaining table.

Wilma Lawrence

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