Mixed assessments cloud North Korean threats
Experts are still divided on whether Pyongyang has a nuclear device small enough to put atop a ballistic missile, but recent threats on the US fortress island of Guam represent a potential strategic game-changer
North Korea has demonstrated with underground tests that it can explode an atomic bomb; it has dramatically demonstrated in two tests in July that it can fire a missile powerful enough to reach the continental United States.
What Pyongyang hasn’t yet proven is whether it can marry the two to create a workable nuclear weapon capable of striking US targets.
For several years, weapons and non-proliferation experts have speculated that Pyongyang had succeeded in “miniaturizing” the atomic device sufficient to fit on the top of a ballistic missile that could reliably reach the target and survive atmospheric reentry.
North Korea, of course, has long maintained that it has accomplished this feat, which is in fact relatively common among nuclear weapons states. Many North Korea watchers are reluctantly coming around to the notion that they can do this.
The Washington Post recently reported that there was a consensus among the “intelligence community” that North Korea has accomplished this feat and could hit the US, Japan and South Korea with nuclear arms in line with leader Kim Jong-un’s threat to engulf America in an “unimaginable sea of fire.”
The Japanese, however, are not willing to go that far in their assessment. The latest defense ‘White Paper’ (Defense of Japan 2017) says only that North Korea has made “significant headway” in its nuclear arms development.
The paper acknowledges its “possible” ability to develop miniaturized nuclear warheads that can fit on the tips of its missiles.
It is notable that not everyone believes that Pyongyang’s two missile tests in July could really reach the continental US. The Russians have published wildly different figures for the flight duration and trajectory of North Korea’s recent tests, suggesting that they could not have reached the United States.
The consensus of the intelligence community seems conclusive enough, although there are quibbles as to whether Pyongyang’s missiles have a guidance system that can find the target or a reentry vessel that can prevent the warhead from burning up in the lower atmosphere.
The July test rocket came close enough to Japan to be tracked and photographed from its northern island of Hokkaido. It reputedly showed the warhead breaking up. The missile was launched on a very high trajectory, which means it travelled only about 500 miles to fall into the Sea of Japan.
There of course is one way that North Korea could prove conclusively that it has reliable and workable nuclear weapons. They could put a live atomic bomb on the top of a missile, fire it somewhere and explode it in the atmosphere for all to see.
This is what China did in 1966 to demonstrate that its initial 1964 atomic bomb test was not a fluke but a real weapon. Of course, the Chinese have a vast desert hinterland for testing; North Korea has no such desolate and remote atomic bombing range.
North Korea’s missile program has long been hampered by the fact that the country is small and it cannot test long-range missiles without violating powerful neighbors’ air space.
That, however, hasn’t stopped Pyongyang in the past. In the late 1990s, North Korea fired long-range rockets directly over Honshu, Japan’s largest and most populated island. They splashed down in the North Pacific Ocean after failing to put a satellite into orbit.
North Korea later moved its launch site from its eastern to far western region, and shot them on a due south trajectory, only momentarily passing over Japanese territory in the southwestern Ryukyu Islands and landing in waters northwest of the American fortress island of Guam.
Guam is now in North Korea’s sights again. Less than two days after the publication of the Washington Post story and US President Donald Trump’s threat to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea, Pyongyang unveiled an astonishingly detailed plan to lob missiles near the vital US military outpost of Guam.
North Korea said that it would fire a volley of four intermediate-range missiles, presumably bracketing the American outpost, landing 30-40 kilometers from the island. Pyongyang specifically noted that the rockets’ trajectories would cross Japanese air space in Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi prefectures.
In the past year, no fewer than seven North Korean missiles have fallen within 200 nautical miles of Japan’s coast off Akita prefecture without soliciting any major reaction from Tokyo other than a mild protest. Pyongyang obviously figures that it has taken Japan’s measure.
North Korea has long feared Guam, which in its view is a nest of pirates. The island is home to Anderson Air Force base, which is the base for B-1 and B-52 bombers which routinely fly missions along the Demilitarized Zone separating the two Koreas and can carry nuclear weapons.
American military facilities occupy nearly 30% of the island that hosts at least 6,000 US military members. It is also the home port for US nuclear submarines that would likely be deployed any conflict situation.
Pyongyang did not specify the launch site or the time of the threatened launches near Guam, which some speculate will come before the end of August. The last time North Korea set of a volley of four missiles was in June, which potentially aimed at American bases in Japan.
Such a test would have a lot of appeal for Kim Jong-un: It would exercise the troops in his Strategic Rocket Force, also known as the Missile Guidance Bureau, thumb his nose at Japan and irritate the US by appearing to stage a test attack on one of its most important bases in Asia.
It would also possibly answer some of the earlier questions about Korea’s capabilities for long-range flight, especially if all four missiles manage to hit their targets or close to them. North Korea would thus not need to conduct a more difficult atmospheric test to demonstrate it capabilities.
The next move in such a scenario, for which Trump recently said the US is “locked and loaded”, would be crucial. Guam, as recently deployed in South Korea, has Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missiles.
That would create an exquisite decision for the US: Should it attempt to shoot the missiles down or let them pass unimpeded rather than risk shooting and missing?