Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 August 2017

North Korea: will we make a pre-emptive nuclear strike?

[For the consequences of the years of top-level ignorance and incompetence we face, click here. For President Trump’s six-month report card, click here. For comment on our weak Yankee defense against information warfare, click here. For some popular recent posts, click on the links below:
In a recent orgy of ape-like chest beating, North Korea’s “news” agency taunted us Yanks, saying that the Pacific Ocean wouldn’t protect us from Kim’s nukes. There’s some truth in that. Intercontinental ballistic missiles can jump the Pacific in just 30 to 40 minutes.

But there’s also a bit of a lie. Geography still matters. So does physics.

They call nuclear missiles “ballistic” because most of their trajectories—all but the short “boost” phase—is unpowered. Once the rocket engines die, the missiles “fall” like bullets leaving the barrel of a gun. Their speed and direction at that time, the shape of the Earth, the force of gravity, and the distance from launch site to target determine how long their deadly trips take.

The table below shows some relevant distances from Pyongyang (a proxy for North Korea’s launch sites) to some relevant targets in the United States. The table also shows two other distances for comparison: (1) that between Bismarck, North Dakota (a proxy for our Cold-War ICBM sites) and Moscow and (2) the longest distance from any point in North Korea to a nearby sea or ocean in which one of our nuclear-missile submarines could hide undetected.

Therein lies the rub. North Korea has no nuclear submarines, let alone seaborne ballistic missiles it can launch from them. It has no foreign possessions, nor any ally willing to launch nukes on its behalf despite fear of nuclear retaliation by the victim. So North Korea has to fire its missiles across the Pacific Ocean, or part of it, while our subs can get our missiles up close.

The final column in the table lists the estimated time to target of a missile launched over each of the listed distances. The estimate relies on simple proportionality of time to distance, using the old Cold War standard of 35 minutes from our missile silos (presumably near Bismarck) to Moscow.

Distance and Time to Target for Missiles from and to North Korea
Pyongyang-San Francisco8,993 km28 min
Pyongyang-Seattle8,262 km26 min
Pyongyang-Honolulu7,386 km23 min
Pyongyang-Anchorage5,992 km19 minutes
Pyongyang-Guam3,402 km11 min
Offshore sub-
any point in North Korea
100 kmNominally 20 seconds
Bismarck, ND-Moscow7,963 km35 min*

* Assumed as time/distance standard

Of course the table is not entirely accurate. The actual ratio of time to distance is nonlinear; it depends on complex gravitational equations.

But the table is accurate enough to make a simple point. Except for Guam, there is no other time in the table to a US target that is anywhere close to the time—nominally twenty seconds, probably less than ten minutes in practice—for our submarine-launched missiles to reduce North Korea, or as much of it as we choose, to rubble. North Korea could be history by the time any of its missiles landed on our soil.

Unfortunately, missiles are very hard to shoot down, especially in their ballistic phase, where gravity accelerates them toward their targets faster and faster. So the ghost of an already deceased regime could reach out, through missiles already on their way when we launched our counter-strike, and destroy our cities.

What does this simple point imply strategically? For the time being, there is no such thing as the Cold War’s “mutually assured destruction” (“MAD”) between us and North Korea, as there once was between the US and USSR. At worst, we might lose a few cities in a nuclear exchange. North Korea would, in all practical terms, cease to exist. Even if Kim himself survived in a deep bunker, there would be no soldiers or ground-based weapons left on the resulting radioactive moonscape to protect him from our commandos in haz-mat suits when he emerged.

Yet time is not on our side. The longer we wait, the more nukes and missiles Kim will have, the farther they will go, and the more accurately they will hit their targets. In other words, the longer we wait, the more cities we (and perhaps our allies) would lose in any nuclear exchange, even after North Korea became history, ballistics took its course, and North Korean missiles out in space reached their targets.

So the strategic conclusions are clear and stark. We can wipe North Korea off the map, or we can decapitate it, before or after it fires its nuclear missiles at us. There is absolutely no doubt as to which side would “win.” But the only way we can be sure of emerging more or less unscathed is to strike first. And the longer we wait before striking first, the higher the risks of not doing so will be.

The longer we wait, the closer North Korea comes to terrible destructive parity. And everything we know about North Korea suggests that Kim is hell-bent on that goal, to the point of starving and abusing his own people.

This is the dilemma that faces our president, our military and our strategic thinkers. At the moment, Kim won’t strike first because doing so would amount to unilateral suicide. But the longer we wait, the closer the strategic balance comes to mutual suicide, as at the height of the Cold War. If that ever happens, we must submit to terror and bullying by the most pathological regime on Earth.

We lived with a similar risk for decades during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But then we had no choice. And there were important differences.

Soviet leaders were far more measured and cautious than Kim. Still in memory was their nation’s agonizingly pyrrhic victory over German fascists, just part of Russia’s dubious distinction of being the most battered major power in human history.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who eventually made a deal to avoid Armageddon, once bragged “We will bury you!” But he could have been speaking of his supposedly superior Soviet society out-competing ours. To my knowledge, no Soviet leader ever openly threatened a first nuclear strike. And when nuclear test bans and disarmament agreements came along, the Soviets signed them and mostly kept their word, except for biological weapons.

Kim is different and much worse. He has repeatedly threatened a first nuclear strike. His “nation” is the most pathological in modern history, a hermit kingdom completely isolated from the rest of the world, with a “government” full of sycophants. Non-sycophants with independence get murdered like Kim’s uncle. Kim’s people are as oppressed as the Soviet Union’s at the height of Stalin’s Terror and are far more cowed than Russia’s, Turkey’s or even Egypt’s today.

Unlike the Soviets in their day, Kim’s regime has broken every deal he has made, with three successive American administrations. And now he is dead honest about his ultimate aim: to achieve nuclear parity and mutual assured destruction with us, and if the chance presents itself, to bully or destroy us.

If Kim were smooth and smart, he would string us along with tantalizing diplomacy until he had reached nuclear parity. Then he would privately disclose his nuclear arsenal and apologetically note that mutual assured destruction was already in force. He would be low-key and non-threatening.

But Kim is not that smart. The fact that he is shunning diplomacy and is trash-talking like a teenage street fighter suggests the depth of his isolation. There may be no one within his regime of sycophants to tell him what he doesn’t want to hear. There may not even be anyone to tell him that to launch a nuke now would be absolutely assured suicide.

Kim’s recent threat to nuke Guam—which is the closest to Pyongyang of all our possessions and hence the target that would give us the least warning—reflects his dangerously puerile state of mind. Any perceived military advantage, no matter how small or transient, he will try to use for blackmail.

Our spooks seem to think that only a year must pass before Kim has serviceable ICBMs that can nuke the bulk of our cities. After that, it’s just a matter of mass production to get to parity and MAD. Do we really want to allow a demented tyrant like Kim to stand in the fearsome shoes of the old Soviet Union? Although it did some trash-talking, the Soviet Union’s government in its final years was one of the most cautious and conservative on Earth. Not so Kim’s today.

About 78 years ago, European democracies failed to take a tyrant at his word. They compromised, delayed, and promised “peace in our time.” The result was the world’s most terrible war. When the dust settled, 50 million lay dead prematurely. A full-scale nuclear exchange with a fully-nuclear-armed Kim could be worse.

It’s useless to try to psychoanalyze Kim Jong Un. His country’s culture and his own cult of personality are so far from our experience as to resemble what we might some day find among alien races in outer space. I have outlined my own small knowledge of the paternalism and authoritarianism of Korean culture, and I won’t repeat the analysis here. Suffice it to say that, in my view, it exceeds Imperial Japanese and Islamic culture in its paternal rigidity.

And that was in the South, which is slowly changing under the influence of its own democracy and the West. The North has had no similar influence.

In any event, all we can rely on is Kim’s actions. He has consistently refused to make fair deals and has broken the deals he has made. He has threatened repeatedly to use the terrible weapons he is building. And he has built his national economy (besides begging from China) almost exclusively on threats, crime, terror and blackmail.

Any pre-emptive strike by us would have to be nuclear. To be effective, it would have to be a coordinated surprise attack, seeking to “decapitate” the North Korean government by killing Kim and his entourage instantly, probably with a closely-timed barrage of small nukes. At the same time, we would have to take out most of the reported 14,000 conventional artillery pieces threatening Seoul, likely also with a coordinated series of small nukes.

The strategic advantages of a nuclear assault include not just power, but speed. Launched from several subs in seas on three sides of North Korea (the north side is China), the nuclear missiles could be timed to reach all their targets simultaneously, likely within fifteen minutes of the first launch. There would be no series of conventional air strikes, no laborious degrading and destruction of the North’s formidable air defenses, and little or no time for armies to move or artillery to emerge from caves and fire.

If our arsenal includes secret neutron weapons, which I believe likely, there might be insufficient personnel left manning the North’s Seoul-aimed artillery to fire it. No one but their families would mourn the men who, for decades, have stood ready on orders to wreak havoc on Seoul, a rare gem of human freedom, progress and success on mainland Asia.

The suddenness and ferocity of the nuclear attack would render all the massive planning for conventional war unimportant, if not irrelevant. Unless the huge but decapitated North Korean army began to move on its own (an unlikely event without command or control), there would be no reason to torture the North Korean people further. With proper attention to weather, wind direction and radioactive fallout, it should be possible to minimize casualties and prevent a prolonged ground war. Some external force, probably China, would have to come in on the ground, pick up the pieces, and restore order in the North. (The South, with its own and our troops present, could take care of itself.)

It would be in China’s interest to have a more pliable, normal buffer state. It would also be poetic justice for China to do the heavy lifting in the aftermath, for China created this monster and has nurtured it for over six decades. There is no doubt what nation has played the role of Dr. Frankenstein in Korea, while China’s other buffer state, Vietnam, is practically a model nation. China ought to rectify the consequences of its bad judgment and help clean up the mess it made.

When a nation supposedly at peace spends its income and energy building weapons of war, the world ought to take note. It failed to do so with Hitler, to its everlasting regret.

In some respects Kim is worse than Hitler. Until his armies started to move, Hitler talked peace internationally while inciting his people toward war. Kim talks war incessantly, both internally and externally, keeping his people and his region in a constant state of fear, anxiety and supposed “readiness” for war. Should we assume he doesn’t mean what he says? Didn’t we make that mistake once before, with globally catastrophic results?

I have read many of the popular press’ analyses of the uniformly bad options that face us and South Korea. But insofar as they expect durable and positive results from diplomacy, they seem to revel in wishful thinking.

What lessons of the past three decades didn’t our diplomats learn? If Kim is (and his father was) just trying to drive a hard bargain, he’s certainly doing it in a strange way and taking his time about it. We have to take seriously the probability that the world’s most absolute tyrant just doesn’t think as the rest of us do, and that his sole goal is to delay until he’s attained MAD and can bully us and the rest of the world. He’s either too honest or too in love with his own domestically absolute power even to use the old Communist stratagem: talk, talk; fight, fight.

Our adversaries, too, recognize that depth of the pathology that Kim represents. That’s why the recent Security Council resolution authorizing sanctions was unanimous. That almost never happens with respect to other parts of the world, even in benighted Syria.

This is the dilemma that faces us. Should we secure peace now by giving a twisted tyrant the power to destroy us at any time, even after we have destroyed him and his nation?

Is Kim worthy of the same careful treatment as the Soviets? The Soviets were our allies in World War II. Their own twisted system—Communism—may have been economically misguided. But it was intended to bring Russia and its satellites into modernity, and it did so, albeit with terrible hardship and loss. That’s why many Russians still revere Stalin.

In contrast, Kim’s system has brought his people nothing but famine, poverty, backwardness, isolation, and obsequious servitude tantamount to serfdom. There is no evidence of any realistic current chance for change.

Furthermore, Russia is a great power and has been for centuries. North Korea is an upstart spinoff nation whose economy is based on begging (from China), force, terror and crime. If ever a whole tiny nation were an international outlaw and pirate, North Korea is.

Of course we must not be hasty. Diplomacy—or attempts to start it—should continue. But we should have no illusions after three decades of duplicity, cheating and promise-breaking. In the nature of things, no one must know until our submarine-launched missiles rise out of the ocean on a trail of fire. When we reach the point of no return only our spooks can say, and they aren’t talking.

One thing the whole world should understand. We Yanks are a risk-averse people. Except for our enslaved Africans and displaced native Americans, all of us (or our ancestors) came here fleeing risk, mainly foreign wars and persecution. Syrians and others are still doing so.

For over a century, we Yanks tried to hide behind our oceans and our Monroe Doctrine, but progress and technology have caught up with us. Forced by circumstance to fight in both world wars, we proved helpful in one and decisive in the other. Our risk aversion led us to use the nuclear weapons we had invented, in order to avoid a ghastly house-to-house invasion of the Japanese mainland.

Since then, our risk aversion has made us a bit trigger happy. We’ve waged at least three major unnecessary wars—in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq—based on a simplistic risk-aversion theory best expressed by Dubya: better to fight them over there than here. Our spooks have toppled legitimate democratic regimes, in Iran, Chile, and Central America, just to avert a perceived risk of instability in oil markets or “our” hemisphere.

China in particular should understand two things about our national risk aversion. First, since 1945 we have responded to risks, both real and imaginary, coming from anywhere in the world. Examples are our Cold War paranoia (mutually shared with Russia’s Soviets), our fanciful “Domino theory” in Vietnam, and the fuzzy thinking that led to our invading and occupying two sovereign foreign nations (Afghanistan and Iraq) in the aftermath of 9/11. Second, although our risk aversion has much broader geographic scope, its strength is no less than that of China’s own, which motivated China’s involvement in wars for border buffers in Korea and Vietnam, and which today motivates China’s legally baseless claim to owning the South China Sea.

So the notion that we Yanks would suffer the likes of Kim Jong Un to hold the sword of national destruction over our heads for the foreseeable future is just not consistent with our national character. Sooner or later, right or wrong, good or bad, this facet of our national character will reassert itself. Then, absent a solid deal like the one with Iran, thoughts will turn toward pre-emptive strikes. Perhaps it would be better if they did so before it’s too late.

In the nature of things, no one outside the US will have a clue until a strike occurs. This is a secret that no Yank, no matter how partisan or crazily ideological, will leak. Not only would such a leak be treasonous; as time goes on, it could get millions of us killed.

Today, I judge the probability of a surprise, pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea to be about 40%. But it’s rising with every week that passes sans palpable progress in diplomacy, and with every test by North Korea of another nuke or missile.



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