North Korea’s recent nuclear test has generated much media attention and expert commentary. Notwithstanding legitimate concerns about nuclear weapons in the hands of a rogue regime, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about what to do.
Many urge negotiations to contain or even roll back the nuclear program, but DPRK’s leaders have shown no interest. They say they’re going to keep their nukes to avoid what happened to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.
Absent agreement on preconditions for talks, President Obama has wisely chosen not to provide Kim Jong Un with an ill-deserved negotiating forum, and the associated stature that comes with major power engagement, simply because he possesses or tests nuclear weapons.
So what should we do? Yes, increase secondary sanctions, freeze overseas bank accounts and seek further to isolate a regime that, as documented by a well-regarded UN panel, has carried out unspeakable crimes against a large segment of its population.
Most important, our approach should also include a concerted military-technical effort to deny Kim Jong Un and his crowd the perceived benefits of owning nukes. We must convey to them credible US capabilities to prevent or otherwise thwart any use of nuclear weapons against our forces or allies.
What, specifically, are the needed capabilities?
• Exquisite intelligence to know when a nuclear ballistic missile launch is being considered or directed, and to prevent or delay a launch order from reaching missile units.
• Military capabilities to destroy fixed-based and mobile missiles on the ground before they can be launched or, if any get launched, advanced missile defenses to shoot them down.
• Cyber capabilities to disrupt warhead arming and firing systems, or cause flaws to be introduced into warhead designs, so that any arriving warheads are duds. On this last point, foreign “assistance” to North Korea’s nuclear program is a problem, but it is also an opportunity.
Under such conditions, North Korea’s leaders would no longer “own” their nuclear weapons — in a sense, we would.
A bit fanciful? Not necessarily. The technologies, subsystems and capabilities exist today to address each one of these goals notwithstanding the need for a bit of luck here and there. It is well within the realm of technical possibility.
Consider the problem of hunting mobile missiles. We didn’t do a very good job of this during the first Iraq war in 1991. But the North Korean problem is different, and systems and technologies for sensing and locating, on-board high performance computing, precision strike, and command and control, have greatly advanced in 25 years.
North Korea has about the same land mass as Virginia, about one-fourth the size of Iraq. From Andrews AFB in Maryland, F-35 aircraft could reach any point in Virginia within 10-15 minutes. F-35s based in South Korea, not that much farther from North Korea than Andrews is from Virginia, could carry out precision conventional strikes within that same time.
In theory, just a few stealthy drones, flying at appropriate altitudes and with appropriate revisit rates, could cover the entire country 24/7, cueing strike aircraft shortly after a mobile missile was spotted. Just looking at a map, the North Korean road network is primitive and sparse. If mobile missiles are not easily off-road capable, then an area search problem is reduced to a much more manageable linear search.
There are reports that North Korea is developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile that it may consider more survivable than land-based missiles. Given US capabilities to locate and track noisy, older generation submarines, such as those possessed by North Korea, this is not likely to be a prudent investment.
The most difficult challenge will be cutting across bureaucratic stovepipes and compartments of US intelligence, defense R&D, and military operations to produce a system of systems able to negate North Korea's nukes.
A second challenge will be ensuring that North Korea’s isolated leaders receive the message, unfiltered by underlings, that they can’t count on their nukes so they better not risk using them. Selected demonstrations of key US capabilities could bolster messaging.
Creating doubt about whether nuclear weapons are effective as a regime shield, or as means to coerce others, may lead to more risk-adverse regime behavior. Kim Jong Un may be just a bit more likely to ponder a series of events that end with his being hauled before the International Criminal Court to answer for crimes against humanity. It may also open the door for serious negotiations not just on nukes but on the regime’s response to international pressures to restore basic human rights to its people.
John R. Harvey served as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs from 2009-2013.