What Are We Going To Do About North Korea

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North Korea is not going to launch a first strike on America or its allies with nuclear weapons. To understand this, you don’t need to know anything about the history of U.S.-North Korea relations, or the throw weight of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or even where North Korea is. All you need to know is human history. And history says that small, poor, weak countries tend not to start wars with gigantic, wealthy, powerful countries — especially when doing so will obviously result in their obliteration.

So what exactly is the “crisis” involving North Korea? The answer is simple: We’re not worried that we can’t deter North Korea. We’re worried because a North Korea that can plausibly strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons will likely be able to deter us from doing whatever we want. For example, we might not be able to invade North Korea. When they go on TV, U.S. officials pretend there’s some chance that North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un will wake up one day and persuade all the people who help him run their bleak kakistocracy that they should commit mass suicide.

But backstage, in government memos and think tank reports, America’s foreign policy mandarins have explained the issue clearly, over and over again. One lucid example can be found in “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” a well-known paper by the Project for a New American Century. The U.S., it explained, “must counteract the effects of the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction that may soon allow lesser states to deter U.

S. military action. … In the post-Cold War era, America and its allies, rather than the Soviet Union, have become the primary objects of deterrence and it is states like Iraq, Iran and North Korea who most wish to develop deterrent capabilities.” And we’re not just talk: Iraq and Libya both surrendered their unconventional military capacity, and we then invaded them. North Korea’s rulers definitely noticed that and have clearly explained why they have no intention of following Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi into oblivion.

So take a look at these basic facts about the U.S. and North Korea, and ask yourself: Who exactly is plausibly going to attack whom? Why North Korea Won’t Attack the U.S. The Intercept None of this means, of course, that North Korea having nuclear weapons and long-range missiles is a good thing. It’s terrible. The Cold War was full of examples of nuclear war almost breaking out by accident at moments of high tension.

But there’s nothing we can do to avoid that with North Korea except by talking to them and trying to reduce conflict whenever possible. It’s also unsettling to imagine the fate of North Korea’s weapons when the regime finally dissolves. Moreover, it’s not impossible that people in North Korea’s chain of command would find it tempting to sell one of their warheads to terrorists. But that ship has sailed; any attempt to reduce the risk of those things to zero would have certain consequences far worse than the risk itself.

So let’s concentrate on the good news: We definitely have it in our power to prevent North Korea from using its nuclear weapons on us. All we have to do is not attack them first. Top photo: A woman passes by a TV screen showing a local news program reporting on North Korea’s threats to strike Guam with missiles at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017.

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Pyongyang residents watch a big screen near the Pyongyang Railway Station showing the news on the successful launch of the new Hwasong-15 missile on Wednesday. AFP/Getty Images Unless you spend a lot of time hanging out on nuke Twitter, the fact that the missile North Korea tested Tuesday was a new Hwasong-15 instead of the previously seen Hwasong-14 is probably not that interesting to you. Joshua Keating Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and author of the forthcoming book, Invisible Countries.

The key takeaway, according to David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is that it reached an altitude of 4,500 kilometers. This means that if it were flown on a standard trajectory, it would have a range of more than 13,000 kilometers (8,000 miles), putting Washington, D.C.; New York City; and all of the continental United States within North Korea’s reach. The missile probably couldn’t travel that far while carrying a real nuclear warhead—Tuesday’s missile most likely carried a lighter mock warhead.

But given the pace of the program’s development, it seems like only a matter of time before North Korean engineers work that out. And while it’s not clear quite how accurate North Korea’s missiles are, when you’re dealing with nuclear blasts, there’s some margin for error. Advertisement All this is pretty alarming, but it’s not actually that new. Most of the U.S. was already in range of the Hwasong-14 that North Korea tested in July, including some fairly large population centers of the West Coast that you might be familiar with.

Still, North Korea is treating the Hwasong-15 test as a milestone. According to the Korean Central News Agency, Kim Jong-un “declared with pride that now we have finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.” He’s not wrong. North Korea, one of the world’s poorest and most isolated countries, is now one of the world’s nine nuclear powers.

You can blame who you want for the fact that we got to this point, whether it’s the Chinese for their lack of pressure, or the Obama administration taking its eye off the ball, or the Bush administration’s belligerence, but it’s the reality that we now face. President Trump promised to “handle” the situation Tuesday, but it’s not quite clear what he plans to handle. As always, military options are “on the table,” but the likely consequences of any of these options are so grim that even Steve Bannon finds them unpalatable.

(Sen. Lindsey Graham feels otherwise.) The U.S. and its allies continue to deploy more advanced missile defense systems, but as Fred Kaplan recently explained, that shouldn’t bring anyone comfort. Trump and his officials have occasionally suggested that they’re open to finding a diplomatic solution, but North Korean officials have made it clear that they have no interest in talking until they’ve sufficiently demonstrated their ability to strike the East Coast.

As analyst Andrei Lankov writes, “We can be pretty sure that in the months to come we will see more ICBMs flying high into space, and that sooner or later, the North Koreans will test an ICBM on a regular trajectory (admittedly, a highly risky move).” So, the likely response, as Trump suggested Wednesday morning, is likely to be more and tougher sanctions. The Chinese government does appear now to be taking the problem more seriously, so these measures could have some extra bite, but previous sanctions have done little to deter the nuclear program, and North Korea, which has one of the world’s most repressive political systems and sees its diplomatic isolation as a badge of honor, is a textbook case of a sanctions-resistant country.

As Lankov writes, even if the sanctions do “work,” hurting the country’s economy to the point that it destabilizes the government, it will take “a year or so before the results are felt in North Korea.” The only good news (and it’s not that good) is that the world has some experience at this point in avoiding nuclear war. The U.S. and Soviet Union faced off without firing their nuclear weapons for more than 40 years.

Pakistan and India have done so for nearly 20. As Jeffrey Lewis recently wrote, at the time China tested its first nuclear weapon in 1964, it was viewed in the U.S. as “the most impoverished, backward communist regime in Asia, run by a madman and recovering from a crippling famine.” In other words, we’ve been here before, which is not to say it will definitely happen the same way this time. The risks of catastrophe become greater, of course, if the situation is not handled with sensitivity and caution, which makes the current occupant of the White House particularly worrisome.

The political and media discourse around this problem often still frames the problem in terms of a future threat, curiously resistant to acknowledging North Korea’s existing capabilities. It’s time to start accepting our current predicament and figuring out what to do about it.

Wilma Lawrence

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