While political Washington indulged its obsession over the latest toxic Trump turmoil, North Korea tested another intercontinental ballistic missile. It was the second in July and 12th this year and just the latest chapter in the isolated nation’s relentless quest for a weapon of mass destruction to deliver upon the United States.
This is not an idle mid-summer fantasy. Fourteen years ago, U.S. intelligence overestimated Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. But it has consistently underestimated North Korean skill and speed in devising the means to fulfill its promise of mass death to America.
Last week, intel warned that a two- or three-year window before Pyongyang could accomplish its intercontinental death delivery system was actually — oh, my! — one year. The communist country could be ready by this time next summer or soon after. But that timeline could be wrong, too.
Washington politicians, seemingly disinterested in doing much of anything, aren’t exactly jumping at the opportunity to take on existential threats. And why would they, given the joys of arcane procedural votes and their next summer vacation, this one five weeks long?
But how can the nation wager its literal future on intel guesses that change by the season? This is the most serious of national security concerns, requiring a broad debate.
In stepped-up tests, the Air Force is about to launch over the Pacific another unarmed Minuteman III from Vandenberg to verify the ICBM’s effectiveness, readiness and accuracy.
Trump the campaigner vowed to shun new foreign fights. He’s relied on China exerting its enormous leverage to rein in Kim Jung Un. Worth the try. But he just tweeted his disappointment: “China could easily solve this problem!”
Now, Congress has levied additional photo-op sanctions on the North, as well as Iran and Russia. Who cares? Sanctions have accomplished diddly. Is Russia still in Crimea? Is Iran still pursuing nukes and ICBMs?
Sanctions have become the West’s go-to cover for inaction, but they have failed to cause course changes. So more sanctions will?
Hopefully, secret plans, yet to be leaked, exist. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster says Trump has ordered the national security team to develop a range of options for the North Korean threat.
Let’s see: Attack or acquiesce? A July Fox News Poll found 55 percent of Americans believe military force will be necessary to halt Pyongyang’s weapons program, up from 51 percent in April.
A string of U.S. administrations have naively or disingenuously tried the negotiation route to no lasting or productive end. Defense Secretary James Mattis says the era of that “strategic patience” has expired. Unfortunately, so has the margin for error or hesitation.
Here’s the problem: The U.S. is developing a promising missile defense system for a limited attack. But it has no proven go-to defense.
ICBMs are vulnerable briefly at launch. They soar thousands of miles into space, then plummet like meteors upon their targets. Last week’s Korean test, it appeared, could have reached most states.
It needs a miniaturized warhead and one that can withstand atmospheric re-entry. The North is also developing submarine-based missiles, which could be launched closer in-shore.
Like any president, Trump avers national security is his highest priority. No president could leave U.S. fate to the nuclear whim of a plump, unstable dictator who executes opponents with anti-aircraft guns.
So, what to do? A pre-emptive strike in one or two places risks catastrophic responses by the North and perhaps China. Some 26 million South Koreans — and 30,500 American troops — reside within 45 miles of the grossly-misnamed demilitarized zone.
Theoretically, special operations forces could infiltrate and take out Kim. But be careful what you wish for. That assumes the replacement general would be any less loopy, more amenable to reason after 70 years of hermit-kingdom isolation, malnutrition and delusional propaganda.
One complication is South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in, who seeks reconciliation with the North. A fond Korean dream. Good luck with that right now. He halted deployment of a modern U.S. anti-missile defense system as a sop to Kim.
Is there any other leverage on China that some deal-maker could use? So far, Beijing doesn’t really mind abiding a thorn in the Americans’ side. It is reportedly strengthening defenses along its Korean border against invasion, most likely by millions of North Korean refugees fleeing conflict.
But wait. China does abhor the idea of a nuclear-armed Japan or South Korea. U.S. nukes were removed from the South in the 1990s. What if, to encourage more productive Chinese cooperation to pressure Kim, Trump were to start talks with those two Asian allies about developing their own nuclear weapons?
It seems counterintuitive and dangerous to combat one nation’s nuclear weapons development by encouraging others to get their own. It is. But all reasonable alternatives are foreclosed now. And the countdown is underway.
Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him on Twitter: @AHMalcolm.