North Korea’s second test of an intercontinental missile on July 28 demonstrated at least two important new realities. First, even experts who doubted the country’s range capabilities after the first test on July 4 now concede that it can likely strike the eastern coast of the United States with a nuclear weapon, if it were to fire this missile along the right trajectory. Second, North Korea appeared to simulate an operational missile launch, which means it wants to show off the kinds of procedures it might use in wartime and convey to Washington that preemption is no longer a realistic option.
Although Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday that the U.S. wants a dialogue with North Korea, not regime change, others struck a harsher note in their response. “There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program and North Korea itself,” Senator Lindsey Graham said. “If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there,” Graham added. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die over here.”
Leaving aside the fact that tens of thousands of Americans live “over there” and would perish alongside thousands of Koreans and Japanese in any war, Graham is wrong to confidently assert that the human cost of military action against North Korea can be contained to Northeast Asia alone. On the contrary, July’s missile tests have shown that the U.S. will not be able to undertake military action against North Korea with complete confidence that it will eliminate each and every ICBM before it can be used against a homeland target. North Korea has made sure of that, despite President Trump’s assurances earlier this year that this “won’t happen.”