North Korea recently doubled the size of its uranium-enrichment plant and pushed through with the testing of rocket engines that could soon power intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the U.S. with a nuclear payload, analysts say.
The test came one day after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Independent Journal Review:
“The threat of North Korea is imminent. And it has reached a level that we are very concerned about the consequences of North Korea being allowed to continue on this progress it’s been making on the development of both weapons and delivery systems.”
Nuclear-proliferation experts have told Business Insider that North Korea’s eventual goal for its weapons program is to create an ICBM with a thermonuclear warhead that can reach the U.S. mainland.
North Korea does not yet have that capability, and likely won’t for years, but its latest high-profile tests show steady progress in that direction.
Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at Stratfor, told Business Insider that the world would change if North Korea achieved its goal of building a weapon that could threaten Americans on US soil.
“North Korea has been perceived in the past as engaging in a nuclear-weapons program as a way to trade for concessions from the U.S. and South Korea,” Lamrani said. “But that paradigm doesn’t hold anymore — North Korea decided to invest in a nuclear-missile program not to trade it away, but as the ultimate security guarantee and the ultimate deterrent against outside attacks.”
As it stands, the U.S. and its allies would face a tremendously difficult task in disabling the North Korean nuclear-weapons program, as hundreds of mobile missile launchers scattered across secret locations in a densely forested, mountainous peninsula would make it nightmarishly complicated to remove in one swift blow.
But Lamrani said the ability to threaten the U.S. with not just one but a salvo of nuclear missiles would represent a loss for the U.S. and further limit options for outsiders to influence Kim Jong Un’s regime. North Korea’s latest progress toward this feat has deeply troubled U.S. officials and observers.
“North Korea has made such progress now that the U.S. feels that it does not have time anymore,” Lamrani said. He added that an ICBM in the hands of Kim would mean the U.S. could no longer credibly threaten North Korea with nuclear force, representing a “point of no return” in multilateral relations.
But although a war with North Korea would be disastrous and potentially cost millions of lives, the window for U.S. intervention is closing fast.
If North Korea developed credible ICBMs, as it may in coming years, the U.S. would be left with three options, according to Lamrani:
1. Continue with diplomacy and sanctions while building up ballistic-missile defense.
2. Cave to North Korea’s demands to be seen as a viable state, accept its nuclear program, and recognize the regime internationally.
3. Go to war and risk a nuclear holocaust on U.S. soil, while killing people in North Korea with nuclear arms.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks to top delegates of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang. (KCNA via Agence France-Presse)
The U.S. currently employs the first option simply because it’s the least-worst choice, but Tillerson recently said the US’s “strategic patience” with North Korea had ended.
Additionally, recent reports from Arms Control Wonk and Reuters uncovered a complicated network of businesses and obfuscation that the Kim regime uses to rake in millions by selling military radios and other goods, despite sanctions.
Another Reuters report quoted North Korean officials as saying it did not fear or care about U.S. sanctions and that it was planning a preemptive first strike, while its recent tests suggest it’s closer than ever to being able to overwhelm U.S. missile defenses.
While the U.S. can build up all the defenses it wants, “missile defense is not a surefire way to negate the threat posed by another country’s nuclear-capable ballistic missiles,” Kelsey Davenport, the director of nonproliferation policy and a North Korea expert at the Arms Control Association, told Business Insider in January.
The second option would be to cave to perhaps the most brutal regime on Earth and cement the failure of decades of diplomacy.
The third option is patently unthinkable and unacceptable.
“Every single one of them is not a great option,” Lamrani said.
So as North Korea creeps closer to an ICBM, the U.S. must quickly decide whether to act now or to potentially admit diplomatic defeat down the road.