TSG IntelBrief: Looming Uncertainty Over North Korea
January 6, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• Issues surrounding North Korea are likely to assume greater urgency under the Trump administration, as crucial milestones for the country’s nuclear program approach.
• A successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launch would be a significant step toward putting the continental U.S. within range of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, with alarming implications for U.S. national security.
• The prospect of a successful ICBM launch is but the latest indication of North Korea’s commitment to expanding its nuclear deterrent.
• As North Korea continues to test and refine its nuclear capabilities, the impetus to confront the threat militarily will increase.
On January 1, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un announced that North Korea was making final preparations to test launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), suggesting the country is moving closer to putting the continental U.S. within range of its nuclear arsenal. President-elect Donald Trump responded via Twitter stating emphatically that ‘It won’t happen,’ and chastising China for not doing more to rein in its hostile neighbor. While the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear program has defied the best efforts of several presidential administrations, the issue is likely to assume greater urgency under the Trump administration, as crucial milestones for North Korea’s nuclear program approach.
The prospect of a successful ICBM launch is but the latest indication of North Korea’s commitment to expanding its nuclear deterrent. In the last year, Pyongyang has conducted two successful nuclear tests—each yielding greater explosive power than previous tests—in addition to launching several missile tests. Yet, despite the country’s rhetoric and its demonstrable advances in both nuclear and missile technology, North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S. remains dogged by several issues. While the country maintains a small stockpile of warheads, it most likely lacks the technology to miniaturize those weapons for delivery via missile launch. Despite the many high-profile missile tests that have rattled U.S. allies in the Pacific, most analysts believe that North Korea still lacks the capability to accurately target its missiles.
Technological shortcomings notwithstanding, a successful ICBM launch would be a significant step towards putting the continental U.S. within range of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, with alarming implications for U.S. national security. As North Korea continues to test and refine its nuclear capabilities—and the window of opportunity to effectively forestall such a scenario grows smaller—the impetus to confront the threat militarily will increase.
However, the options for preventive action are wrought with uncertainty. Militarily, the difficulty of obtaining reliable intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal drastically increases the risks associated with a preventive strike. While the country is known to possess nuclear weapons, additional intelligence required for a successful military strike remains elusive. Currently, the U.S. cannot reliably determine where North Korea’s weapons are located, or to what degree they are protected from aerial bombardment. Without a high level of certainty regarding such details, any military strike risks exposing both the U.S. and its allies in Asia to potentially devastating retaliation from Pyongyang.
Given the uncertainties surrounding the military option, previous administrations have emphasized the political and economic isolation of North Korea in an effort to restrict its nuclear development. However, Pyongyang has demonstrated a remarkable ability to withstand such isolation in preference of a nuclear deterrent. Evidenced in the President-elect’s tweet is a reluctant admission of the key role of China in confronting the North Korean nuclear challenge. As North Korea’s prime political and economic benefactor, any non-military strategy to contain its nuclear ambitions will be heavily reliant on Beijing. However, as the Trump administration seeks to confront China on a host of other issues, Beijing’s willingness to engage on Washington’s behalf may begin to wane. In addition to voicing heavy criticism of China over trade policy, President-elect Trump has questioned America’s devotion to the ‘one China’ policy, which Beijing views as a core national interest. Given the uncertainty surrounding the options for confronting the North Korean nuclear threat, the issue may prove as vexing to the Trump administration as it has to its predecessors.
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