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Is It Already Too Late to Stop North Korea?

In the wake of this shocking report in the Washington Post on North Korea's nuclear and ICBM program being far more advanced than we previously believed, Foreign Policy published an article by one of the premier nuclear experts in the U.S. that essentially says the game is over and North Korea has won.

Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control and nuclear arms expert, has been following the North Korean nuclear program for decades. He makes a convincing case that the Kim regime has more nuclear weapons than we thought and that from the very start of their nuclear program, they decided to build miniaturized bombs to fit on top of long-range missiles.

Lewis believes that the North Koreans went about building their nuclear program differently than some other nuclear powers. Instead of beginning with an implosion device -- a bomb using highly enriched uranium -- they strove to build small, compact plutonium bombs.

Plutonium bombs are significantly more powerful than bombs that use highly enriched uranium, and the fact that they have achieved a certain level of dependability with these weapons means that any attack on their facilities could precipitate a launch where at least a few of their missiles would get through to devastate some cities.

What makes this analysis so troubling is that Lewis used to analyze the progress of rogue-regime nuclear programs for a living and was an expert at reading between the lines of intelligence assessments and other data to find what others may have missed.

The fact that North Korea’s nuclear weapons used less fissile material than we expected helps explain the second judgment that North Korea has more bombs than is usually reported. The defector claimed that North Korea’s first nuclear weapon contained only 4 kilograms of the limited supply of plutonium North Korea made, and continues to make, at its reactor at Yongbyon. (For a long while, experts claimed the reactor was not operating when thermal images plainly showed that it was.) The North Koreans themselves  claimed the first test used only 2 kilograms of plutonium. Those claims struck many people, including me, as implausible at first. But they were only implausible in the sense that such a device would probably fail when tested — and the first North Korean test did fail. The problem is North Korea kept trying, and its later tests succeeded.

We also must take seriously that North Korea has perhaps stretched its supply of plutonium by integrating some high-enriched uranium into each bomb and developing all-uranium designs. North Korea has an unknown capacity to make highly enriched uranium. We’ve long noticed that the single facility that North Korea has shown off to outsiders seems smaller than North Korea’s newly renovated capacity to mine and mill uranium; we naturally wondered where all that extra uranium is going.

The bottom line is that our options are limited and entirely unsatisfactory:

Unless the intelligence community knows exactly where North Korea is enriching uranium and how big each facility is, we’re just guessing how many nuclear weapons the country may have. But 60 nuclear weapons doesn’t sound absurdly high.

The thing is, we knew all this already. Sure, sure it isn’t the same when I say it. I mean, I am just some rando living out in California. But now that someone with a tie and real job in Washington has said it, it is news.

The big question is where to go from here. Some of my colleagues still think the United States might persuade North Korea to abandon, or at least freeze, its nuclear and missile programs. I am not so sure. I suspect we might have to settle for trying to reduce tensions so that we live long enough to figure this problem out. But there is only one way to figure out who is right: Talk to the North Koreans.

The other options are basically terrible. There is no credible military option. North Korea has some unknown number of nuclear-armed missiles, maybe 60, including ones that can reach the United States; do you really think U.S. strikes could get all of them? That not a single one would survive to land on Seoul, Tokyo, or New York? Or that U.S. missile defenses would work better than designed, intercepting not most of the missiles aimed at the United States, but every last one of them? Are you willing to be your life on that?

On a good day, maybe we get most of the missiles. We save most of the cities, like Seoul and New York, but lose a few like Tokyo. Two out three ain’t bad, right?

As Deb Heine points out, the Obama administration knew most of this as far back s 2013. And, of course, the major enabler of the North Korean nuclear program, the Clinton administration, knew how determined Kim was to create a nuclear deterrent even to the point of starving his people to get the bomb. Neither president did anything to stop them when it was possible to do so.

We can't possibly know what our intelligence agencies know about the location and number of weapons in North Korea. But even if Lewis's estimate of 60 is off by 50%, that's still a lot of missiles to get before they launch.

What Lewis doesn't explain is why Kim would risk the annihilation of his country by employing a Götterdämmerung strategy -- launching his missiles at the first sign of a U.S. attack. There are other factors to consider, including the internal politics of North Korea. The Kim regime has no illusions about the consequences of launching nuclear missiles at America or her allies. Given Kim's less-than-solid hold on power, it's possible to imagine a military coup or a coup involving another faction in the inner circle that would stop a suicidal move to strike the U.S.

Still, the military option for Donald Trump cannot be taken off the table. To paraphrase Senator McCain, who commented on a possible attack to take out Iran's nuclear program:

There's only one thing worse than military action. That is a nuclear-armed North Korea.