As tensions continue to rise between Pyongyang and Washington, D.C., over North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear testing, arms-control experts are engaging in very sobering debates concerning America’s capacity to defend itself against full-scale nuclear attack.
Verdict: It can’t.
For example, the United States’ Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, which is designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles from North Korea and elsewhere, is woefully suspect. Its testing record is 10 out of 18 attempts. To break this down in very simple terms, anything less than 100 percent is failure. Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests since 2006, a very high number for a nation that vows to wipe America off the face of the earth. To put this in perspective, America’s last nuclear test was in 1992; Russia’s was back in 1990.
It is unknown how many nuclear warheads North Korea has exactly (some estimates have the figure between 10 and 60), but it would be foolhearted to assume that its nuclear scientists haven’t figured out how to fit them onto ballistic missiles that can reach the continental United States. If, in fact, North Korea has just 10 ICBMs that can reach America and fires them all at once, nuclear arms experts told The Root there is no guarantee that GMD can stop all of them.
Below, we break down the stakes of a possible nuclear battle between the United States and North Korea and why we aren’t as safe as we think we are.
1. What is an ICBM and what kind does North Korea have?
An ICBM is a missile with a range between 3,000 and upward of 10,000 miles. Keep in mind that there are intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that travel shorter distances. But we’ll just deal with ICBMs for now.
ICBMs can be launched from submarines, underground missile silos and heavy trucks. Their trajectory is a ballistic one, which means it goes up into space and back down to Earth via its re-entry vehicle or warhead. The warhead is the part that separates from the missile, which boosts it into space, re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere and travels at speeds upward of 20,000 mph toward its target, most likely a city. An example of an ICBM would be America’s silo-launched Minute Man III.
Here’s an animation of its launch and trajectory toward its target below:
North Korea’s ICBM is called the Hwasong-14. With an estimated range of 6,500 miles, the missile, in principle, works under the same operation as the Minute Man III. Some experts believe it can carry a warhead that is capable of reaching San Diego or Alaska. Some estimates have it reaching Chicago.
James McKeon, a policy analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation who focuses on North Korea, said it is very likely that Pyongyang has mastered warhead re-entry. Additionally, he said that the American public should be careful not to dismiss North Korea’s technological advancements and not to listen to those who say Pyongyang doesn’t have the skills to make a nuclear weapon that can hit the U.S.
“There were analysts a couple of years ago who said North Korea would never get an intercontinental ballistic missile,” he said. “They’ve now proven on multiple occasions that they have a missile, the Hwasong-14, that, at least in theory, can reach the West Coast of the United States or perhaps the Midwest. Every time they pretend that North Korea will never get this or they’ll never get that, they set themselves up to be wrong.”
Takeaway: Assume North Korea can hit America with an ICBM.
2. Can’t the U.S. military just shoot down North Korea’s missiles and not worry about it?
No, they can’t.
As mentioned earlier, America’s GMD has a testing record of 10 out of 18 intercepts of a test warhead since 1999. And that was in perfect weather conditions and with full notice. What’s more, the system has not been tested against, say, 10 warheads coming for America at the same time. How the GMD is supposed to work is, upon detecting a launch, it fires a kill vehicle in the direction of the incoming warhead while it is in space, outside of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Here is an animation of how it is supposed to work:
But there’s just one problem with that. Decoys.
David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that missile defense systems like GMD can be tricked by warheads that split into several re-entry vehicles, creating decoys that can draw the kill vehicle while the real warhead evades detection and heads toward its target back on Earth.
If you go to this video at around the four-minute point, you will see an example of what decoys can do:
North Korea, Wright said, would have the technical know-how to develop such a warhead and is very likely working on it as we speak.
“If they decided they were going to fire a missile at the U.S., they would be doing everything they could to make life very difficult for the [missile] defense by throwing in surprises, decoys and anti-simulation, where, instead of making decoys that look like the warhead, you make a bunch of decoys and you make a warhead look like a decoy,” he said. “Instead of the scenario where [GMD] looks up and sees the warhead and takes a shot at it, the defense will look up and see a lot of things, and it is not sure which is the right warhead. Then the problem is, by having enough decoys, you simply can overwhelm the defense.”
Takeaway: North Korea isn’t dumb enough to fire one ICBM at America and pray it hits. It will throw the nuclear version of the kitchen sink at America, which North Korea knows the U.S. likely will not be able to fully defend against.
3. What can trigger a nuclear attack from North Korea?
Well, at the moment, Donald Trump’s big-ass mouth. Recently, North Korea’s foreign minister, Ri Yong Ho, said that Trump is declaring war against his country with his rhetoric.
“Since the United States declared war on our country, we will have every right to make all self-defensive countermeasures, including the right to shoot down the United States’ strategic bombers at any time even when they are not yet inside the aerospace border of our country,” Ri said.
Keep in mind that no peace accord was signed after the Korean War ended in 1953, so the chance of Pyongyang shooting down an American military plane is very real. They’ve done it before, in fact. North Korean fighter jets shot down an American EC-121 spy plane flying off the coast of the Korean Peninsula in April 1969, killing all 31 crew members on board. In 1981 they shot a missile at a SR-71 Blackbird. In 1994, North Korea also shot down a helicopter that accidentally flew over the Demilitarized Zone.
What was the response? Nothing, really.
Today the stakes are far higher because North Korea has nukes. If Trump, with his childlike impulses, orders a strike against North Korea, even a conventional strike, that action could conceivably trigger a nuclear response from North Korea. Of course, America has some 6,800 nukes and could easily destroy North Korea with a fraction of them. But if North Korea, fearing the end is coming, fires 10 ICBMs at the United States and one of them hits Los Angeles or San Francisco, it is still a loss of millions of lives.
Takeaway: No one wins in a nuclear attack. Absolutely no one.
4. Is North Korea really a nuclear threat?
Yes, it is.
Many analysts, while admitting that Pyongyang is advancing in its nuclear-weapons program, are very reluctant to concede that the country’s warheads are capable of re-entry. Matin Pfeiffer, a nuclear-weapons expert and a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, noted in a recent blog post that there is often a racialized narrative that accompanies non-Western nuclear programs, such as those in India and Pakistan, for example.
North Korea is no exception:
Kim Jong Un is often simultaneously infantilized while being also (paradoxically) described as a Ming the Merciless caricature: maniacal, without regard for human life, and driven solely by power. Within two minutes, an interlocutor at the Nuclear Institute referred to KJU as “crazy” and like a “teenager with nukes” who can’t be deterred because he “kills his own people.” The North Korean people in this conversation were described as “mind-controlled” in a way that the Soviet and Chinese supposedly were not. Certainly, KJU can be cruel, oppressive, and murderous; based on historical example (Stalin, Mao, Nixon), however, this does not place a person outside the bounds of rationality required for nuclear deterrence. In addition, the persistent doubting of DPRK technical capability, and the assumption that North Korean successes result from outside help, is exacerbated by racialized imaginaries of North Koreans as backward, pre-modern, and ant-like. Similar themes are discernable in US discourses occurring after and in reaction to the first Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani nuclear tests.
Basically, those brown and Asian people are too dumb to create nukes comparable to America’s. It is that kind of thinking that can cloud serious discourse on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development. McKeon, the nuclear analyst, also expressed concerns over the stereotypes assigned to North Korea.
“A lot of people view North Korea as a backwards state that’s not technologically advanced; their people are starving, their technology isn’t like it is in the Western world,” he said. “So they assume the North Koreans will never have the capabilities to develop intercontinental ballistic missile technology or develop a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be put on top of it and have that missile and warhead reliably re-enter the atmosphere after a ballistic missile flight. The problem with this view is that it has been proven wrong time and time again.”
Takeaway: If you think the North Koreas can’t fire a nuclear weapons at the United States, check your prejudice.
Pyongyang can really cause irreversible damage to the American mainland if a diplomatic solution is not reached. Trump’s bluster in response to Kim’s rhetoric is not the formula for peace. Cooler heads must prevail because North Korea can hurt America if it really wants to.
We just have to hope it never gets to that point.