Op-Ed: How to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear threat without starting a world war
ABCNews.com · by · September 18, 2017
In the past two months, the calculus of the threat from North Korea has fundamentally changed. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has demonstrated a missile that could range most of America, has detonated a thermonuclear bomb at least twenty times more powerful than that used on Hiroshima, and has shown credible evidence of miniaturizing a nuclear weapon to fit atop an intercontinental ballistic missile. The Kim regime, once a regional threat, has now become a clear and present danger to the U.S., and to the stability of the world.
The unpalatable choices for President Trump are little different from those of his predecessors; more diplomacy, more economic sanctions, or preventive military attacks on North Korean nuclear and missile facilities. These choices range from dangerous to demonstrably futile.
Diplomacy with North Korea has a decades-long record of bipartisan failure. As Kim’s nuclear weapons program continues apace, North Korea has no incentive to negotiate, and has made it clear that de-nuclearization is off the table. The US has nothing new to offer, and no pressure to impose.
Nor will current approaches to economic pressure be effective without cooperation from China, which is unlikely given that it has a vested interest in the stability of the Kim regime. Recent UN sanctions were so restrained by China that even President Trump called them “not a big deal.” As Putin noted, the North Koreans will “eat grass” if they have to.
Traditionally, where diplomacy and sanctions fail military force begins. But because there is so little good intelligence, any preventive attack on North Korean nuclear sites would undoubtedly miss critical elements of the program. More worryingly, a direct attack would risk igniting a devastating war on the Korean peninsula that might include the exchange of thermonuclear weapons, even Kim firing a salvo of nuclear weapons at the continental U.S. in desperation.
Yet doing nothing, allowing Kim to threaten the world, and proliferate nuclear weapon technology to dangerous regimes such as Iran, is unacceptable.
There is another option. A strategy of “active containment” using existing military capabilities, by forming a missile defense perimeter in international waters surrounding North Korea that would knock down every missile launched. This approach could quickly address a difficult problem in a restrained and efficient way, and would prevent Kim from continuing to develop the means to deliver nuclear weapons, without which he is unable to threaten the world.
This idea is feasible using currently deployed naval technology. The U.S., South Korean, and Japanese navies all have interoperable, state-of-the-art Aegis radar systems, and will be buying associated SM-3 series missiles that can intercept most North Korean missiles throughout their flight. Most importantly, the newest SM-3 Block IIA version can also knock down the kind of ICBM that could reach the continental U.S., either in its ascent or terminal phase.
Unclassified U.S. Navy data shows that just two U.S., Japanese, or Korean destroyers in international waters off North Korea could form this missile defense perimeter: One in the Sea of Japan to the east of Korea, and one to the south in the Yellow Sea. Space-based sensors and powerful radars in South Korea and Japan would see missiles lifting off and pass initial targeting data off to the ships at sea, which could then launch missiles that would destroy the North Korean missiles in flight. Intercepts could be calculated to occur outside of North Korean airspace, and to have the debris fall harmlessly into the ocean.
As with any strategy, there would be risks to weigh. One would be that a shot at a North Korean missile may miss – no missile has a perfect record, particularly new ones – giving Kim a propaganda coup. But the price of temporary embarrassment would yield data points that would enable the U.S. to quickly perfect its technical capabilities, so that the next one wouldn’t miss.
The legality of shooting down a missile may also be a question. But while Kim would claim peaceful testing, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan could claim collective self-defense. Kim would be hard pressed to claim sovereign infringement, nor find much sympathy at the UN where his missile program has been declared illegal. Intercepting illegal missiles in international airspace, firing from international waters, leaves little room for protest.
Worst case risk to this approach is that Kim lashes out militarily as the prime source of his legitimacy, intimidation, and hard currency is curbed. But this is a risk that is part of any forceful strategy to neuter North Korea.
Active containment would address not only the current North Korean threat, but the future threat as well. Although prudent to acknowledge the increased risks recently demonstrated by North Korea advances in missile and weapon capability, there are at least two critical parts of a credible nuclear capability that have not been demonstrated – a warhead that can survive the intense heat of reentry, and the ability to accurately target.
Without demonstrating these capabilities, Kim’s nuclear threat is based on a bluff. A more credible North Korean nuclear capability will still require much development and testing. Kim will need to continue to test missiles not only for the credibility that comes with reliability, but also so that rogue states such as Iran will continue to buy the missile technology that provides hard currency to run his regime. Active containment of North Korea will also send a message to other potential bad actors who flout international law with impunity.
Shooting down every missile that Kim launches, or at least holding them at risk, could neutralize North Korea’s nuclear weapons program not only by denying his ability to deliver them, but by impeding his ability to improve them – with far less risk than a preventative military strike on North Korean soil. No testing, no improvements, no credibility, means less of a threat to the region and the US.
Given that Kim Jong Un has bet his regime’s future on the ability to threaten the world with missile-delivered nuclear weapons, active containment could be a singularly effective and efficient step towards thwarting his dangerous ambitions, while reducing the risk of an unimaginable nuclear war.
Steve Ganyard is an ABC News Contributor. He is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, and Marine Corps Colonel.
ABCNews.com · by · September 18, 2017