Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Pre-emption

There is a good chance that North Korea will acquire the ability to destroy many US cities sometime in the next few years. It can certainly destroy Seoul right now, and probably nuke a number of Japanese cities as well. Aside from making itself far more dangerous, it is bound to be an inspiration to a number of dangerous regimes around the world.

If there were ever any good options for avoiding this, they are long gone. The NYT presents the essentially hopeless case.

When then-President-elect Trump said on Twitter in early January that a North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States “won’t happen!” there were two things that he still did not fully appreciate: how close Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, was to reaching that goal, and how limited any president’s options were to stop him.

The ensuing six months have been a brutal education for Mr. Trump. With North Korea’s Tuesday launch, the country has new reach. Experts believe it has crossed the threshold — if just barely — with a missile that appears capable of striking Alaska.

Mr. Kim’s repeated tests show that a more definitive demonstration that he can reach the American mainland cannot be far away, even if it may be a few years before he can fit a nuclear warhead onto his increasingly powerful missiles. But for Mr. Trump and his national security team, Tuesday’s technical milestone simply underscores tomorrow’s strategic dilemma.

A North Korean ability to reach the United States, as former Defense Secretary William J. Perry noted recently, “changes every calculus.” The fear is not that Mr. Kim would launch a pre-emptive attack on the West Coast; that would be suicidal, and if the 33-year-old leader has demonstrated anything in his five years in office, he is all about survival. But if Mr. Kim has the potential ability to strike back, it would shape every decision Mr. Trump and his successors will make about defending America’s allies in the region.

For years, the North has been able to reach South Korea and Japan with ease, and American intelligence officials believe those medium-range missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.

The most drastic option is pre-emptive war, or threat of it. The US casualties of such a war might be confined to Korea, but Korean and Japanese losses might be horrific.