This week crazy North Korean dwarf, Kim Jung un, world’s sexiest man (according to both the Onion and The Chinese People’s Daily), Rap music star (according to this parody I found called kim jung style), Time man of the year and ruler of the world’s largest ant hill, decided to celebrate Christmas in style by letting loose one of his big fireworks. Which apparently managed to work (again, I have to question the credibility of a country whose most fearsome weapon is called a No Dong) this time.
This successful missile test sent many in the right wing press into a complete tizzy. Will he be nuking LA next? (actually if you’ve ever been many would argue that would be an improvement!). Does this justify the US (or even the UK) spending many hundreds of Billions more on a large arsenal of nuclear weapons, not to mention missile defence systems?….Not quite!
But I would make a few key points:
1) The NK Taepodong-2 missile is a crude and primitive liquid fuelled ICBM, not unlike the first generation USSR and American ICBM’s of the 1950’s. Such missiles are very expensive to operate, need large launch platforms to prepare for launch (which are virtually impossible to hide due to their size) and take a period of many hours if not several days to fuel and prepare for launch.
Of course it will be all to obvious to the west what is going on (as it was for this launch) and the flight time for an incoming airstrike of a fighter squadron from a South Korean airfield (or carrier) would be measured in minutes. Indeed a B-2 (which the DPRK lack the ability to track) could be armed and flown from its base in the continental United States to North Korea and destroy the missile on the pad long before it was ready to launch.
2) The NK’s have in all probability a fairly crude first generation nuclear weapon, not unlike the Fat Man device. Unfortunately this is way too heavy to be mounted on a missile such as the Taepodong (which has a maximum payload of around 300 kg’s while such a bomb weights in at 4,000 kg’s!). Even they’re shorter range and more advanced missiles (that can hit targets in South Korea or Japan) are unlikely to have the payload capacity to carry a nuclear warhead (maximum 1,000 kg’s is generally agreed by experts).
Miniaturizing nuclear warheads sufficient for mounting on a missile took the major powers a considerable period of time and involved a lot of research (which didn’t come cheap!). Indeed it has taken the Chinese a good 30 years to prefect this technology with substantially better resources than those available to North Korea. I am personally doubtful the North Koreans have this capability nor that they will ever achieve it any time soon. So short of some lucky break with espionage (of course the problem with DPRK is that any agent will likely just defect in exchange for a big mac as soon as he’s over the fence!) its unlikely this will ever occur.
3) In addition to a miniaturized warhead, the North Koreans would also need a re-entry vehicle. That is a heat shield sufficient to allow the warhead to renter the atmosphere and not get burnt up or have its electronics damaged and then guide the warhead onto its intended target. LA or San Francisco might look like a big target, but on the globe scale they are tiny. If the missile misses its target by as little as 1% that amounts to missing the city by 70 to 100 miles (likely then detonating over sparsely populated farmland or over the ocean). Again it took considerable research efforts by the USSR and US to perfect such devices.
4) Even if the NK’s could somehow dupe the west and launch a missile carrying a WMD (without that being stopped) and develop all the other things needed, the range of these missiles is such that it is highly unlikely it could reach the US (save Alaska….so the US might loose some slightly nutty politicians and some good moose hunting country!) They certainly cannot hit the UK or Europe.
5) The North Korean leadership no doubt realise that actually using a WMD would be an act of politic (if not actual!) suicide. The US would respond in some way, and a strongly worded letter from Hilary Clinton ain’t going to cut it. While the US might forgo the option of a nuclear response (if the weapon failed to go off or as noted, exploded harmlessly over the ocean). They and their allies in the region have more than enough firepower in their conventional arsenals to devastate the North Korean military in very short order. It is almost certain that what is left of North Korea would then by invaded and occupied afterwards. As I’ve previously discussed, even the South Korean military, without any assistance from the West has more than sufficient manpower and firepower to overwhelm the North Korean military by itself.
The reality is that Kim Jung un is likely merely signaling his intention to maintain the North Korean Policy of C.F.C, or Crazy, Fearsome, Crippled. As I’ve previously mentioned the CIA’s nickname for the Pyongyang Adm. is apparently the crazy gang or “the Hermit Kingdom“. As North Korea’s long term survival strategy is to always keep the world guessing and appear sufficiently on the edge and dangerous that on the one hand the world won’t simply ignore them and let the regime wither and die. But on the other hand they know they don’t want to push the poker hand too far such that they give the west a valid reason to retaliate militarily.
Indeed it was telling that the missile went nowhere near the continental US (or even Japan, it overflew a few sparsely populated islands, that’s all) but right along the Chinese coast. China has just been through a once in a generation leadership change and my suspicion is this was in effect a shot across the bow of the big red Dragon to the West, not the Yankie devils to the East.
China is often described by western reporters as North Korea’s only ally. That’s not a sentiment shared in Beijing, as the wiki-leaks fiasco revealed. No, to them North Korea is like some crazy decrepit old relative who has a nasty habit of making casually racist comments and getting them into trouble with the local council by running over teenagers toes with her scouter. The Chinese would in truth by rather rid of the DPRK, but have to tolerate them for reasons of the internal workings of the ruling Chinese communist party (of course, in truth the Chinese communist party is no more socialist than the Tory’s nor the North Korean monarchy style regime with its hereditary leadership).
So in essence this event was more about North Korea letting China and the west know that CFC is still in effect.