The US intelligence community assesses sometime over the next four years, North Korea will be able to arm an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear weapon. The first thing to know is that an assessment is what intelligence agencies produce when they don’t know something exactly.
Yet this week, the New York Times reports the Obama administration began in 2014 covert cyber-attacks against North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes. The decision was made based on an earlier secret assessment that the traditional continental US missile defence batteries in Alaska and California will only succeed about 44% of the time under ideal conditions.
If the North Koreans do manage to shoot off an ICBM or several, it won’t be in ideal conditions. So the US decided to unleash its cyber forces (put a pin in that, it’s important, but not for this week). The exposure of the cyber-attacks help make sense of why many of Pyongyang’s missiles fall into the sea, but it’s impossible to know if the cyber programme is to blame.
The North Koreans seem to be aware of all this as their launches are once again succeeding. Four missile tests were conducted this week, all of which landed in the Sea of Japan, watched closely by nearby US and South Korean exercising military forces. Donald Trump is only 50-odd days into his first term, and North Korea is already rattling the cages as expected.
China is uncomfortable by the actions of both Washington and Pyongyang, but not so uncomfortable that they will take action to make the North Koreans reconsider. And at this point, with such ideological intransigence in both Washington and Pyongyang, perhaps there isn’t anything that would cause either to reconsider.
US Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper said last year in open testimony how it is perfectly logical and almost inevitable that North Korea will get a nuclear capability. Pyongyang has closely watched what happens to independent-minded countries if they don’t have nuclear weapons. Case in point: Iraq and Libya. It wants nukes for rational reasons – from their perspective.
The missile problem is bound closely to the nuclear. Since Eisenhower’s time, the US has spent $US300 billion trying to figure out how to hit a bullet with a bullet – the anti-ballistic missile system. This is a tough physics problem and nobody has any cures. Cyber-attacks give the US an additional layer of defence to stop the threat at what the Pentagon calls “left of launch,” or before the launch occurs, by interfering with command and control.
Yet there’s no guarantee of success. If the defence fails, a larger military action carries its own dangers. In US military headquarters in downtown Seoul, commanders are never far from Kevlar armour and chemical protective gear because they are within range of thousands of artillery tubes, as are 14 million civilians.
This is a wicked problem, and if there was a diplomatic solution someone would have enacted it by now. From Washington’s perspective, the only option is to continue to slow it down and create enough space for changes within the country. From Pyongyang’s perspective it wants to be left alone to be a traditional monarchy. Nuclear weapons make this option far less digestible, but then again, the US wouldn’t give up its democratic mission if North Korea discarded its nukes tomorrow.
Keep in mind an awful lot of Pyongyang’s actions is crisis theatre. Its foreign policy looks like it’s been taken from a shampoo bottle: provoke, accept concessions, repeat. Except this time the country is led by a young leader and he’s provoking with more dangerous weapons than just artillery tubes. Add to the mix a new US administration and this looks like in an unpredictable situation.
The US makes discreet concessions because it wants the problem to go away to reduce the probability of war. And tactically, making concessions is probably the correct decision. But the overall strategic effect is to teach the North Koreans they can provoke without consequences.
Yet if North Korea were to genuinely provoke, not simply perform this theatre of missiles landing in the open ocean, a military response wouldn’t necessarily need to be proportional or confined to the location of the original provocation. If anything similar to the 2010 sinking of the corvette ROKS Cheonan re-occurs, the political situation in South Korea almost requires a wider military response.
It’s not clear if this would include the Americans, but Washington would need at least to meter Seoul’s response. Everyone understands this is dangerous and a North Korean response would become deeply unpredictable. But the “international community’s” actions have taught the regime it can provoke without danger. These are the results of not having the guts to deal with a problem early and failing to act like the imperial power the US actually is.