The End of Containment?

The likelihood that North Korea will soon have a thermonuclear weapon and long-range delivery system may have started the countdown to a nuclear-armed Japan and South Korea. Seismographic evidence of a powerful subterranean nuclear test blast suggests that Pyongyang is not bluffing when it says it can rain down fire on great capitals. "Hours before North Korea announced it had tested a hydrogen bomb, its state-run news agency had a stark message for the world: We've developed a more powerful nuclear weapon and we can make as many of them as we want."

As this article on U.S. missile defense options notes, the ICBM threat from Iran and North Korea is not only real, but even the defense of the North American continent against them is by no means assured. A "hypothetical Iranian ICBM (based on the North-Korean Unha-3 space launcher) heading towards the Northwestern United States" will be vulnerable in a window only 300 seconds wide to interceptors in Poland.

The intercept timing for Japan or South Korea for a shot aimed at Guam, for example, is even tighter due to their proximity to the missile launch sites.

Based on the time/distance envelopes for SM-2 and SM-3 missile intercepts calculated from Joan Johnson-Freese (a professor at the Naval War College and a lecturer at Harvard University) and Ralph Savelsberg (an assistant professor at the Netherlands Defence Academy), an Aegis defender [of Japan] would only have a few minutes to get off a shot at an ICBM launch from North Korea. Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers would have to be dangerously close to the North Korean coast to get a chance to strike an ICBM in "boost" phase as it rose and could be vulnerable to North Korean submarines if an actual attack were planned.

The entire core Western world -- Japan, South Korea, Western Europe and the North American continent itself; the great gleaming capitals of Tokyo, Seoul, Paris and London -- now lies under the gun of potentially sacrificial launch sites. Whether they are secretly supported by great powers and whether Iran and North Korea have cooperated to jointly create a WMD system is not openly known.  But it is fairly certain that with  preemption not an effective option and defense at best uncertain, nuclear weapons containment may finally be dead.

The road that led to the funeral was paved with good intentions. Robert Litwak, who served on the National Security Council staff as director for nonproliferation in the first Clinton administration, explained what Barack Obama was trying -- and ultimately failed -- to achieve in a 2013 interview.

Obama came to office with a commitment to engage "rogue" states, which he repositioned by referring to them as "outliers" and offered them a structured choice with a significant upside and penalties for noncompliance. And that engagement strategy, the hand that Obama extended to North Korea and Iran in his first inaugural address, was rebuffed. That is the situation that we’re in right now.