Qioptiq logo Raytheon Global MilSatCom

North Korea: The Non-Nuclear, Non-Missile Crisis and the Shape of Things to Come By Anthony H. Cordesman

One would hope that the North Korean “crisis” is moving away from bluster and counter-bluster, and towards the realism shown by Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and General McMaster. One might even hope that President Trump might have learned that gross overreaction and issuing empty threats discredits the U.S. in terms of allied support and is not a meaningful bargaining tool in dealing with fellow blusterers like Kim Jong Un. One might even hope that media and think tank reporting and commentary would be a little more critical and interested in the facts in a future crisis.

Far too much of what has been said would have done a much better job of fitting the Cuban missile crisis than the reality of North Korea. Testing a missile booster and a reentry vehicle is a long way from having an actual operation missile. Having a design capability to make a relatively small fission warhead is a long way from having produced and test an actual warhead design — much tested, recovered, and examined a passive design fired on an actual missile.

It is all of 228 miles, or 367 kilometers from Havana to Miami — a range any proved short range ballistic missile could cover with enough accuracy and reliability to hit an urban sized target. Google reports that it is 5,055 miles, or 8,055 kilometers from North Korea to Seattle — although some sources put it lower. Google reports that it is marginally longer to San Francisco (5,459 miles) and Los Angeles (5,806 miles), and much longer to New York (6,672) miles. Firing an unproven missile with an unproven warhead in an unproven RV with unproved accuracy and reliability at these ranges against a major nuclear power goes from stupidity to insanity.

You really can’t have a new Cuban missile crisis if there are no missiles, no nuclear warheads, and “Cuba” is farther away from the U.S. than Russia. (It is some 4,860 miles from Moscow to Washington, D.C. You can’t launch “preemptive” strikes if there is nothing to preempt. You can’t launch “fire and fury” if you are taking no steps to prepare for a major war in the Koreas, bringing a carrier back to port, and treating the risks of a major conventional war in the Koreas in terms of business as usual.

The real problem is the one that Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and General McMaster have focused on. North Korea can probably field an uncertain initial nuclear armed missile threat against South Korea and Japan within a year if it rushes to do so, and field a proven ICBM capability with a boosted nuclear warhead within two to three years — depending on how demanding the size, vulnerability, accuracy and reliability, and lethality of the force that one calls “credible.” It already may have some 30-60 low yield fission weapons that it could try to deliver by air according to an excellent technical brief by David Albright. (SeeNorth Korea’s Nuclear Capabilities: A Fresh Look – with Power Point Slides , August 9, 2017, http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/north-koreas-nuclear-capabilities-a-fresh-look-power-point-slides/10#images.)

If the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China do not find some answer to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, they are all going to have to respond. The U.S. is almost certainly going to be forced into some form of formal guarantee of “extended deterrence,” and to commit itself to retaliating in kind against any North Korea use of nuclear weapons against in the U.S.’s South Korean and Japanese allies. Depending on the build-up of the North Korean threat, it may have to reintroduce nuclear weapons to the Korean Peninsula or accept South Korean deployment of its own nuclear-armed missiles. “Nuclear” can easily come to mean thermonuclear as well, and war is horrible enough with 20 kiloton weapons, 100 kiloton plus boosted weapons, and weapons in the 500 kiloton to one megaton level have truly horrifying lethality.

There is nearly certain to be a major race on the part of South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. to deploy theater missile defense systems of the kind China and Russia have already strongly protested. The U.S. may well be push into much larger deployments of missile defenses of the U.S. — steps that may affect Chinese and Russian efforts to increase their nuclear strike forces. Somewhat ironically, President Trump may have to make good on his statements about improving U.S. nuclear strike capabilities in ways no one has yet planned — affecting virtually every aspect of nuclear arms control, and possibly leading to a much larger Chinese strategic force at a time China is already beginning to go from single warhead missiles to Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) systems.

The conventional balance between the two Koreas may alter as part of this arms race, and both sides may increase their readiness for war. South Korea and Japan will not be able to ignore the interaction between the North Korean nuclear threat and North Korea’s extensive holding of chemical weapons and possible holding of biological weapons. Japan may eventually seek its own offensive missile and nuclear retaliatory capability — over time as the broader arms race accelerates. China, in turn, will not only react in response to the local threat, but to the overall level of tension with the United States.

Nothing about the end result will be the equivalent of a “two person zero sum game” in which the U.S. and North Korea are the only players and one side wins at the expense of the other. There is no clear term of game theory for a game in which there is no clear number of players, where no player shares exactly the same interests or plays according to exactly the same rules, and where every action by any player increases the level of mutual risk to all the players including themselves — and this clearly includes the current actions of North Korea. Every step raises the ante in terms of the size and cost of each side’s forces, and the risk and cost of war.

This is why President Trump and Kim Jong Un have at least mentioned negotiations, and why Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and General McMaster have given negotiations or some form of “preventive” — not preemptive — military action. The risk is not today’s potential North Korean nuclear threat. It is what can so easily evolve over the coming decade: An open-ended nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia with players whose actions and level of restraint in any given crisis is far harder to predict than the impact of mutual assured destruction in the Cold War.

This is no time to “speak stickly and carry a big soft.” The U.S. has no choice about reacting to the real world North Korean threat. Everyone will be far better off, however, if that reaction can take the form of some arrangement with North Korea that can trade a U.S. and South Korean assurance that there will be no invasion or effort at regime change and encourages North Korea’s civil economic development in return for halting its nuclear and long-range missile production and deployments. This may not be an option, given Kim Jong Un. But, it is far better to at least explore it than simply accept the real nature of today’s North Korean missile and nuclear developments — the potential start of an open-ended arms race in one of the most critical single areas shaping the global economy and the security of the world.


The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit organization founded in 1962 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. It seeks to advance global security and prosperity by providing strategic insights and policy solutions to decisionmakers.

Back to article list