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Evaluating the North Korean Threat

In recent days, there has been significant focus on the threat North Korea poses to the security of the United States and its allies. Additionally, there has been intense debate over the significance and appropriateness of President Trump’s tweets on this matter. Undoubtedly, the potential of a nuclear North Korea is frightening, as Kim Jong Un’s regime could potentially strike the United States, Japan, or Guam, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. Yet the reporting on the North Korean threat is most concerning, as various media organizations and political commentators have resorted to sensationalism and yellow journalism, disregarding the contexts of North Korea’s threats.

First, there has been a significant misrepresentation of facts on this matter from news sources on all sides of the political spectrum. Commentators have claimed that Kim Jong Un is an irrational actor and unpredictable. This simply isn’t true. While he may seem irrational at times, Kim’s motives are well-known and extremely predictable. As the leader of a brutal and repressive dictatorship, Kim’s sole focus is becoming a nuclear power, ensuring his regime’s survival and allowing it to gain leverage over the West. Thus, North Korea views any activity by the West to prevent or discourage them from becoming a nuclear power, such as joint military drills or economic sanctions, as a direct threat to their national security interests and, by extension, their survival. Without the ability to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting Western nations and their allies, North Korea would become irrelevant and lose their only source of leverage.

Unfortunately, the prioritization of sensationalism over fact does not just stop there. CNN and other news outlets have have reported heavily on an assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which concluded that North Korea has the capability of producing a miniaturized nuclear warhead. However, this is not the consensus in the intelligence community. Sources familiar with the DIA assessment note that while North Korea may have developed the miniaturized capability, they have not yet tested it. And Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia fellow at the Brookings Institution, notes that individual intelligence leaks like this have a spotted history of actual veracity.

Recent North Korea sensationalism doesn’t end with the miniaturized bomb leak. Jeffrey Lewis, an “expert” on North Korea’s missile program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, has made outrageous and unfounded claims in an interview for Vox and an op-ed in the New York Times. Lewis stated that North Korea has successfully tested reliable missiles that can hit the east coast of the United States. According to the Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Missile Defense Project, the only operational missile North Korea has that could reach the United States, Taepodong-2, can only reach as far as the Midwest. Certainly, its range would certainly be decreased by the weight of carrying a nuclear payload. CSIS’ estimates are even far larger than the majority of US military experts, who believe that North Korea could only potentially reach the state of Alaska. Other experts, such as Mike Elleman, who is a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, assert that North Korea may not even have missiles that are accurate or reliable enough to strike Guam.


Without the ability to develop a nuclear weapon capable of hitting Western nations and their allies, North Korea would become irrelevant and lose their only source of leverage.


Next, coupled with these pure inaccuracies reported by several news outlets is the omission of the ability for the United States and its allies to prevent a North Korean missile from striking. Almost every news outlet has repeatedly showed the estimated time that it would take for North Korean missiles to hit Guam, Japan, and even mainland American cities. Further, they talked with officials in Guam and Hawaii to find out how they will inform residents of potential attacks and inquired tips on how to survive a nuclear attack. But reports like these erroneously assume that the missiles would travel unencumbered. To the contrary, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that is deployed by the United States, Japan, and South Korea has a nearly one hundred percent success rate. By leaving out this crucial information, a large portion of the media has left individuals frightened and in panic. They have led these civilians to believe that the threat of a nuclear strike on Guam or the US mainland is imminent.

The message our politicians and commentators should be sending to the American people is one that is reassuring, not one that is apocalyptic. You might be asking yourself why am I this optimistic. It is because I have full confidence in our intelligence agencies, military, and missile defense systems. First, according to the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Mike Pompeo, there is no intelligence to suggest that there is an imminent threat of a nuclear war. Second, even if North Korea is able to attach a miniaturized nuclear weapon to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the United States and its allies have several layers of defense to intercept the missile, the first of which is a THAAD system deployed in South Korea. This THAAD system can deploy up to eight missiles at a time that could intercept any missiles fired by North Korea and can do so with a 96% success rate, according to Mike Elleman, for each individual missile. According to Elleman’s assessed success rate, if all eight missiles were fired from South Korea’s THAAD system, there would be approximately a 1 in 152 billion chance that it would fail to intercept a missile fired from North Korea. The second line of defense would be cruisers and destroyers equipped with the Aegis radar missile defense system, of which the United States, South Korea, and Japan has dozens. The third line of defense is based in Japan in the form of Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles that could be deployed if any missile fired by North Korea was going to land in Japan. Lastly, if the missile was aimed at the United States, there are currently antimissile defense programs stationed in California and Alaska.

Should you be worried about North Korea being able to successfully detonate a nuclear missile in Guam, Japan, South Korea, or the American mainland? Absolutely not. As previously shown, it is almost mathematically impossible that the first line of defense will ever fail, nevertheless the remaining systems in place. Should you be worried about North Korea beginning a nuclear war? Probably not, as Kim Jong Un well knows that if he decided to fire a nuclear missile at the US or its allies it would most certainly be the end of his regime. Further, Kim’s regime is solely focused on survival, as stated previously, therefore, a nuclear war is unlikely.

What should you do? Realize that the threat that North Korea plays to the United States and its allies is credible, but is unlikely to unfold and is nearly impossible to be successful. If you live in Guam, South Korea, Hawaii, or Japan listen to the advice authorities are providing to its citizens on what to do if a nuclear strike occurs and make yourself aware of the proper protocol, just to be safe, but don’t let the sensationalism rampant in the news keep you up at night.

Photo credit Stefan Kresowski, Creative Commons

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