Since Donald Trump was sworn in as President, he has impulsively sent tweet after tweet, and made regular statements about the United States willingness to engage in armed conflict with North Korea, formally known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Mr. Trump’s torrent increased following North Korea’s July 28th intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test. While the ICBM relied upon height rather than distance the test was internationally interpreted as North Korea having developed the technology to launch an ICBM. ICBMs have a range of 6,000-plus miles and travel approximately 15,000 mph. Unlike conventional missiles, an ICBM travels a suborbital trajectory just above the Earth’s atmosphere, giving it its intercontinental capabilities. What remains untested is whether North Korea’s ICBM technology has been refined to prevent destruction upon re-entry into the atmosphere.
Despite landing in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Japan refrained from a military response choosing to issue another warning to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson followed suit, firmly stating, “We are not your enemy, we are not your threat. We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel.”
Mr. Tillerson’s remark played to Mr. Jong-un’s personality profile. The United States intelligence community has psychologically profiled Kim Jong-un determining that his need for personal survival and the continuation of his regime outweighs his willingness to engage in direct military conflict with the United States, according to Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor.
“The DPRK must choose to stop isolating itself and stand down its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people,” stated U.S. Defense Secretary General James Mattis.
On August 4th Mr. Trump signed into law additional sanctions against North Korea, including sanctions on people or entities that maintain correspondent accounts with North Korean financial institutions, who purchase or acquire significant amounts of certain metals and minerals form North Korea, who sell or transfer to North Korea significant amounts of rocket, aviation or jet fuel, crude oil, petroleum or natural gas, with some exceptions for humanitarian purposes; and who engage in online commercial activities of the North Korean government.
The following day the United Nations Security Council unanimously imposed the harshest sanctions to date against North Korea, which, if properly enforced, would reduce North Korea’s export level by $1 bn.; a full third.
China’s United Nations Ambassador, Liu Jieyi, urged the North Korean authorities to “cease taking actions that might further escalate tensions,” while calling upon the United States to dismantle the missile defense system in South Korean.
Mr. Liu simultaneously called upon the United States to dismantle the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD) missile defense system it had begun installing in South Korea. Based on China’s objections South Korea has not authorized full mobilization of the THAAD.
Thereafter, Mr. Trump and Mr. Jong-un have engaged in an ever-escalating exchange of threats. Mr. Trump’s inflammatory comments and tweets caused concern among our allies, invoked fear among Americans and further agitated North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Sadly, the media is partially to blame having sensationalized Mr. Trump and Mr. Jong-un’s hyperbole rather than presenting a level analysis of the actual risks and probability.
North Korea’s Response
North Korea’s response was that it would be launching four conventional missiles to within 30 to 40 miles off the coast of the American territory of Guam, part of the United States’ EEZ, on Monday, August 14th.
If North Korea launches conventional missiles entering into our territory, including our EEZ, such as the waters off the coast of Guam, Ms. Rice stated that, “We can safely rely on deterrence to prevent a catastrophic event” while clarifying that any such response would be proportional and not a full-out military engagement.
The United States missile defense systems they are the most sophisticated in the world. Understanding that deterrence is the best protection from armed conflict with any state or non-state actor, refining this technology is a military priority. Joining the Patriot and Aegis systems is the state-of-the-art Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD). THAAD can destroy intermediate and long range missiles but not an ICBM. In the event of multiple missile being fired simultaneously, the THAAD system may be capable of destroying up to 10 missiles. For security reasons, more accurate information is unavailable.
THAAD, in place on Guam, as well as through-out the United States and elsewhere abroad, has been successfully tested.
The United States Missile Defense Agency and Japan are now perfecting the Standard Missile-3 (SM-#) Block IIA. The SM-#, operable from either land or sea, is designed to intercept medium and intermediate range missiles. This system, as well as the Patriot and THAAD systems, protect our Pacific allies, such as Japan and South Korea, from North Korean medium and intermediate range missiles.
Over the last year both Russia and China have advocated for restraint and diplomacy but a Chinese state-run newspaper stated on August 11 that, “If North Korea launches an attack that threatens the United States then China should stay neutral, but if the United States attacks first and tries to overthrow North Korea’s government China will stop them.”
The Actual Risk of an ICBM Striking on the American Mainland
Fortunately, past and current presidential security, intelligence and military advisors have issued consistent statements that an ICBM strike against the United States highly unlikely but in the event that the United States was forced into such a scenario North Korea would be annihilated, precisely what Mr. Jong-un is attempting to prevent by stockpiling a nuclear arsenal.
The U.S. Trident D-5 submarine missiles are currently the best defense at destroying an ICBM, presuming that such a missile can perform intercontinentally.
In the meantime, former National Director of Intelligence Brigadier General James L. Clapper stated that the United States needs to continue perfecting missile defense systems designed to intercept and destroy missiles outside or just outside of the atmosphere. If a missile is carrying a nuclear warhead, that warhead would not detonated by its destruction the conditions for detonation would not be met. Thus, there is no reason to fear the dispersal of radioactive material into the environment.
United States Cyber Technology
An anonymous source with the Defense Advanced Research Program Agency has alluded that the United States possesses the cyber technology to cause missile failures. North Korea’s missile launchers are older models retrofitted to accommodate its increasingly diverse missile arsenal. Whenever two computer controlled systems are retrofitted, the door opens to cyberattacks. This is the most plausible explanation as to why 88% of North Korea’s missiles launched over the last three years have failed.
Given Mr. Jong-un’s psychological profile it is not foreseeable that he would credit a missile failure to the United States. Thus, it is a relatively innocuous way of impeding the North Korean nuclear weapons programme. Conversely, the United States would be unable to study developments in North Korea’s weapons program if it precipitated a failure every time a missile was launched.
Additional classified information about North Korea’s weapons program includes intercepted signals and imagery from high altitude surveillance aircraft, drones and satellites, as well as cyber warfare.
About the Author
Cynthia M. Lardner is an American journalist living in The Hague and a contributing editor to Tuck Magazine, E – The Magazine for Today’s Executive Female Executive, and the International Policy Digest. Her blogs are read in over 37 countries. As a thought leader in the area of foreign policy, her philosophy is to collectively influence conscious global thinking. Ms. Lardner holds degrees in journalism, law, and counseling psychology.