In a time of increased uncertainty in the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s recent missile tests are unsettling, to say the least.
On July 4th, 2017, North Korea finally achieved what the nation had been working towards for decades: a fully functioning Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. Pyongyang claims that this new missile can reach anywhere in the world. The North Koreans have fired 17 missiles in 11 launch tests since February, perfecting the technology. This is, quite frankly, an alarming incident, as it shows that the mainland United States is no longer safe from a direct attack by North Korea. Now the question is this: what does North Korea want, and will we be safe?
According to a top U.S. intelligence official, North Korea’s ultimate goal is to manufacture a missile capable of reaching the United States, topped with a nuclear warhead. North Korea fears that the United States will eventually try to remove Kim Jong Un from power; the existence of a nuclear warhead capable of hitting the United States will serve as a warning to any nation or group seeking to oust Kim Jong Un. In the event of this goal being achieved by the North Koreans, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Tensions are high between North Korea and South Korea. According to General Vincent Brooks, the only thing keeping both sides from fighting is self-restraint. If the United States were to launch a preemptive surgical strike against North Korea, it would certainly do damage to the country’s missile and nuclear programs. However, North Korea would most certainly retaliate, putting the safety of U.S. allies South Korea and Japan into jeopardy.
The U.S. has approximately 23,500 troops stationed in South Korea and a little over 39,000 troops in Japan. Pyongyang has the world’s largest artillery arsenal at its disposal, and, with it, could cause great damage to South Korea. Its short-range missiles could also be used to strike against Tokyo.
In the case of these events occurring, the U.S. would be forced to declare war on North Korea, in accordance with the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and South Korea and the 1952 Mutual Security Assistance Pact. This could create a domino effect, causing China (on the side of North Korea) and then other countries to get dragged in as well.
Even if China does not get directly involved, a war between North and South Korea would cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. This is an outcome that the United States and the world in general, wants to avoid at all costs.
If not via a surgical strike, then America must try to dissuade North Korea from continuing down this path through economic sanctions or diplomacy, neither of which have worked in recent years. Diplomacy would require drastic compromises from the United States, like, for example, reducing U.S.-South Korea joint military exercises.
However, the issue with such a concession is that South Korea depends on the U.S. for security against North Korea and China. Reducing the military exercises would cause South Korea to question the United States’ commitment towards the country. Economic sanctions, on the other hand, have not worked so far either. Sanctions have already been placed on key items being exported by North Korea, including weapons, coal, minerals, fuel, and luxury goods. A ban on travel into UN member states for those who work on the nuclear program has also been implemented. Despite all these sanctions, however, North Korea pushes forward, defying international pressure by improving its program.
In retaliation to the missile test, the U.S. and South Korea have conducted a combined exercise that fired missiles into territorial waters.
Experts on North Korea believe that the missile does not have the operational capability to deliver a missile beyond Asia. “One successful test doesn’t get them over the bar, they’re claiming more than they can deliver at the moment,” said Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Sydney’s Lowy Institute. However, Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA from 2006 to 2009, believes that should Pyongyang continue at its current pace, the country could develop a missile that can reach Seattle and carry a North Korean-built nuclear warhead to the American mainland before the end of President Trump’s first term.
Regardless of whether or not the North Koreans are exaggerating, this is a threat that should be taken very seriously and handled with the utmost delicacy.