PYONGYANG, North Korea – Early one winter morning, Kim Jong Un stood at a remote observation post overlooking a valley of rice paddies near the Chinese border.
The North Korean leader beamed with delight as he watched four extended range Scud missiles roar off their mobile launchers, comparing the sight to a team of acrobats performing in unison. Minutes later the projectiles splashed into the sea off the Japanese coast, 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from where he was standing.
It was an unprecedented event. North Korea had just run its first simulated nuclear attack on an American military base.
This scene from March 6, described in government propaganda, shows how the North’s seemingly crazy, suicidal nuclear program is neither crazy nor suicidal. Rather, this is North Korea’s very deliberate strategy to ensure the survival of its ruling regime.
Back in the days of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s “eternal president” and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, the ruling regime decided it needed two things to survive: reliable, long-range missiles and small, but potent, nuclear warheads. For a small and relatively poor country, that was, indeed, a distant and ambitious goal. But it detonated its first nuclear device on Oct. 9, 2006.
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Today, North Korea is testing advanced ballistic missiles faster than ever – a record 24 last year and three in just the past month. With each missile and each nuclear device, it becomes a better equipped, better trained and better prepared adversary. Some experts believe it might be able to build a missile advanced enough to reach the United States’ mainland with a nuclear warhead in two to three years.
So forget, for the moment, how erratic Kim Jong Un and his generals may seem. North Korea conducted two nuclear tests last year; one was of the strongest nuclear device it has ever detonated and the other, Pyongyang claims, of its first H-bomb. The U.S. for its part is also escalating – in an explicit warning to Pyongyang, it successfully shot a target ICBM launched from a Pacific island out of the sky with a California-based interceptor missile on Tuesday.
The question is this: if war breaks out and North Korea launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike on an American military base in Japan – for real – would the U.S. recoil and retreat? Would it strike back, and risk losing Washington DC in a second wave of nuclear attacks?
For Pyongyang, forcing Washington to seriously weigh that calamity is a win. And it may become a real-world possibility on President Donald Trump’s watch.
Rising from the rice paddies
The 7:36 a.m. launch on March 6 was conducted in North Pyongan Province near North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Center. It sent the four Scuds into the ocean 300 to 350 kilometers (185 to 220 miles) from the coast of Japan.
Reporting on it the next day, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun, the ruling party’s newspaper, stated it was not a test to see if the missiles would work, but rather a “drill” to train the troops who will “strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in a contingency.”
To back that up, the North released several photos of Kim in a black overcoat holding a plastic pointer to a map laid out on a wooden table that showed the missiles’ flight path and other data. Analyst Jeffrey Lewis and his colleagues at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California, quickly realized the Scuds were on a trajectory that, with a simple southerly tweak, would have sent them raining down on Marine Corps Air Station, Iwakuni.
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Iwakuni, located 50 kilometers (30 miles) southwest of Hiroshima on the southern tip of Japan’s main island, is home to some 10,000 U.S. and Japanese personnel. It was used as a staging area during the 1950-53 Korean War, when it was called the “Gateway to Korea” by U.S. and U.N. forces, and continues to be one of the largest and most important U.S. military facilities in Japan.
Such an attack wouldn’t need to be nuclear to be effective. The deadly Sarin nerve agent or some other chemical weapon could also cause tremendous casualties. But training a nuclear attack on Iwakuni had a special psychological twist for those who follow the ceaseless military game of cat and mouse in the region. North Korea’s media stressed Kim was accompanied at the launch by nuclear weapons specialists.
“Before the Iwakuni simulation strike, U.S. and South Korean forces were conducting joint military drills, which involved F-35s based out of Iwakuni,” said analyst David Schmerler, who works with Lewis. “As the U.S. and South Korea were practicing their military drills in the event of a conflict on the peninsula, the North Koreans, in turn, practiced their strike plans.”
The U.S.-South Korea drills reportedly included an F-35 stealth fighter “decapitation strike” on Kim Jong Un and his top lieutenants.
Kim, apparently, was practicing how to take them out first.
Why this could all go nuclear: three scenarios
The Cold War concept of “mutually assured destruction” that kept the United States and the Soviet Union from attacking each other requires a “balance of terror” to encourage restraint: Once each side has attained a certain level of destructive power, neither will attack because they are convinced that neither will survive.
North Korea doesn’t have that assurance. If a war were to break out now, it could very well be destroyed. That’s the way things have been for decades.
But here’s where the urgency comes in for the United States and its allies. If North Korea succeeds in building nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can reach the U.S. mainland, the dynamic in a contingency would be highly volatile.
A nuclear-armed North Korea would have a strong incentive to go nuclear quickly and go nuclear first if it believed, correctly or not, that it was about to be attacked. But that also would increase Washington’s first-strike incentive, since it doesn’t want its strategic advantage taken away by a surprise attack on its own cities or military bases.
So both sides have good reason to be trigger happy.
Bruce Bennett, a leading North Korea expert and senior defense analyst with the RAND Corporation, offers these possible scenarios:
– Consider a case in which North Korea has a stockpile of nuclear warheads and the ability to launch them from submarines or remote, hard-to-detect sites on land. Fearing an attack from the U.S., it launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the South Korean port of Busan, then tells the United States that if there is any nuclear retaliation, it will fire nuclear weapons at U.S. cities.
Would Donald Trump, or whoever follows him, back away? Would he risk losing Los Angeles, or Chicago, to defend America’s allies?
– Or North Korea tries another ballistic missile launch like the one on March 6. This time, just before the missiles hit the water near Japan, a nuclear weapon on one or more of the missiles detonates, downing a few commercial aircraft or sinking some cargo ships. This would convince the world that Kim Jong Un has a real nuclear arsenal and isn’t shy about using it.
Would Trump react with a nuclear attack on North Korea?
– Now, picture war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula. North Korea, to convince the United States not to intervene, launches an ICBM that appears to be coming down short, well west of California. But on the way down it bursts in a nuclear explosion, possibly causing some damage to U.S. territory. Pyongyang then threatens more serious damage to the United States if there is any nuclear retaliation or U.S. intervention in the conflict.
Is the U.S. president going to risk millions of people dead and major cities destroyed?
“With the weight of history on his shoulders, how would a U.S. president respond?” Bennett asks. “How should he respond?”
Goose-stepping to the ‘final victory’
It’s mid-morning on April 15, the “Day of the Sun,” the 105th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth.
Some 100,000 North Koreans are amassed in Kim Il Sung square waving plastic bouquets and holding up lettered cards to create designs like the ruling party’s hammer, sickle and brush logo when seen from the balcony of the Grand People’s Study House. That’s where Kim Jong Un is standing.
Kim watches as military units from each branch of his million-man armed forces goose-step by in what North Koreans like to call “single-minded unity.” He then smiles and applauds at the most varied array of missiles and their transport vehicles the North has ever displayed.
The message of the parade, held before reporters from all over the world, is clear. North Korea is, or is near to being, able to launch a pre-emptive strike against a regional target. It is preparing to withstand a retaliatory follow-up attack if it does, and it is building the arsenal it needs to then launch a second wave of strikes, this time at the U.S. mainland.
Unlike the Soviet Union, North Korea can’t annihilate the United States. But if it can clear those three steps, it could conceivably destroy a major U.S. military base in the region or a city on the U.S. mainland.
This vision of a new “balance of terror” built to its crescendo as six submarine-launched “Pukguksong” missiles and their land-based cousin, the “Pukguksong 2,” rumbled through the square.
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Submarines are the ultimate stealth weapon, mobile and notoriously hard to find. North Korea is believed to have one experimental ballistic missile submarine, and this missile would go in its silos. The Pukguksong 2, meanwhile, represents advances on the ground. It uses solid fuel, which means it can be stored and hidden, is ready for rapid launch and fits on a transport vehicle that can be deployed off-road in rough terrain. Kim Jong Un has ordered it be mass produced.
The big reveal came next.
No one really knew what it was until, in its first flight test a month later on May 14, it was sent an astounding 2,111 kilometers (about 1,240 miles) in altitude – higher than satellites in low Earth orbit. It remained airborne for 30 minutes before plunging to the Pacific. With great fanfare, the North’s media declared it the “perfect weapon system” capable of carrying a “large-size heavy nuclear warhead.”
Many analysts believe the missile – which the North calls “Hwasong 12” – could be a stepping stone to the ICBM North Korea needs to attack the U.S. mainland. Kim Jong Un was on hand for its early morning launch, too. He hugged his elated rocket scientists and, according to his official media, claimed he can now hit the United States with an “all-powerful means for retaliatory strike.”
That is bravado. For now. The missile’s estimated striking range is 4,500 kilometers (2,800 miles), give or take.
But, put another way, it’s halfway to Chicago.