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.”
The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) claimed that the most recent test showed North Korea’s ability to stage a “surprise” attack on the United States. In theory, the test sought to express to Washington that North Korea could deploy its road-mobile ICBM at will from launch sites previously unknown to the U.S. To make this clear, North Korea conducted the test at nighttime (night tests generally determine overall readiness to enter combat, whatever the hour), and released footage and images showing a considerably smaller launch pad in use than at the first test. The site that was used for the launch had never hosted a ballistic missile test before, though it was adjacent to a known facility for manufacturing equipment related to North Korea’s long-range missiles.
Despite North Korea’s successful nighttime launch and claims of a convincing “surprise” attack capability, U.S. military intelligence had tracked preparatory activities at the eventual launch site and had high confidence that a launch was imminent at least four hours before the ICBM left the launch pad. The launch site was long known to U.S. intelligence, too. Similarly, U.S. intelligence had seen preparations for the July 4 ICBM test. The fact that the United States is able to see these launches coming is the good news, but it may not last for long.
Graham’s imagined scenario of destroying North Korea’s nuclear and missiles capability without exposing the U.S. homeland to attack would necessitate a preemptive strike by the United States and South Korea. The alliance has the weapons for such strikes. After the July 28 test, both sides immediately staged exercises, demonstrating what’s known as “precision strike capability.” Given sufficient information, these weapons could eliminate many North Korean weapons installations, excluding ICBMs and other ballistic missiles stored in hardened underground sites.
Well aware of this, North Korea has been quite clear about its nuclear strategy as it has introduced a new suite of short-, medium-, intermediate-, and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles over the past 30 months. According to numerous statements, voiced by regime officials and carried by KCNA, North Korea would use its short-through-intermediate range missiles to devastate U.S. forces in Northeast Asia if it detected so much as a hint of preemptive intent by the United States or South Korea. Its ICBMs would then come into play after such a first strike, pressuring the United States to stand back from further escalation lest it see its homeland targets struck with nuclear weapons.
Even if Graham is willing to assert that the human costs of staging a first strike against Northeast Asia are acceptable, the United States would likely be unable to find and destroy all of North Korea’s ICBMs before Pyongyang could use them. Defense systems designed to intercept ICBMs in the air are a gamble. They’ve proven unreliable even in very favorable test conditions, so we can’t expect that they’ll act as impenetrable domes against North Korean ICBMs.
Finding and destroying ICBMs before they can be used then becomes a central task in any military option, but this is far from simple. First, one of the factors that made detection of the two ICBM launches to date feasible was the setup of a VIP viewing area for Kim Jong Un—a dead giveaway that wouldn’t exist in wartime, as multiple ICBMs all over North Korea would be prepared for use. Second, while North Korea’s ICBMs to date have used an inelegant launch setup, making use of a static firing table on satellite-viewable paved launch pads, its eventual plans will probably incorporate fully road-mobile launchers with shorter preparatory times.
Third, North Korea’s ICBMs make use of liquid propellant. Precisely how North Korea is fueling its missiles prior to launch is still unclear, but released video footage and imagery suggest it’s fueling them while they’re still horizontal and haven’t yet been wheeled outside for firing. This makes them harder to detect and take out than if they were fueled outside at the launch site in a vertical position. Taking a page from road-mobile ICBMs in use in China’s arsenal, North Korea may be fueling its missiles in buildings, caves, and tunnels before rolling them out.
Finally, the challenge of preemption intensifies as North Korea continues to construct and deploy additional ICBMs. With a greater number of ICBMs, North Korea can also use deception tactics to mislead U.S. intelligence on likely launch sites. The U.S. intelligence community expects North Korea to gain a reliable and operational ICBM capability by 2018.
North Korea has thus tried to show that any future war on the Korean Peninsula from here on out will be a devastating nuclear war, hoping that this will successfully deter Washington. But for deterrence to work, Washington would have to accept what the enemy is really capable of. Imagining a military option in North Korea that doesn’t expose the U.S. homeland to nuclear strike today, as Graham has done, is the kind of dangerous folly that could lead to immense devastation.