Several friends and associates have contacted me in recent days, asking about the emerging crisis with North Korea, and the implications for national security. I thought I’d pass along some of the things that I’ve told them, plus a few things that have come to my attention lately.
First of all, let’s get the Big Question out of the way: are we staring down the gaping maw of nuclear apocalypse? Most probably, no.
For the sake of context, let’s look at the background of Kim Jong Un, who is the saner of the two leaders in this conflict (Yes, you read that right). North Korea has a long history of interacting with other countries by way of threats, hyperbole, actual provocations, and even contradictory statements. The idea is to keep their opponents off balance, keep them guessing. Negotiating with the North Koreans is particularly difficult because much of the time you have to figure out what it is they actually want; they’ll seldom tell you directly. This game of misdirection and deception is neither random nor cavalier. Every move is carefully calculated, deliberately deployed and stage-managed. They know exactly what they’re doing. Kim may be ruthless and pretty much pure evil, but he isn’t stupid, and his self-preservation instincts are excellent.
This use of propaganda is, of course, turned against the North Korean people relentlessly, literally from cradle to grave. Most of it is “fake news,” but much also draws on the very real history of devastation wrought by the US during the Korean War. What we did to that country was worse than anything rained down on Japan or Germany. Pretty much every single town in the country was flattened. Over 2 million North Koreans perished. They haven’t forgotten that.
Another thing to keep in mind is that North Korea is not a wasteland of starving peasants. The famine of some years back is over, and the North Korean economy has actually grew over 4% in 2016 despite very serious economic sanctions.
North Korea has a very large standing army, more than enough to overrun the US military presence and the South Korean Army. They also have thousands of artillery pieces and conventional warhead missiles trained on Seoul–only 40 miles from the border–and could devastate the city in a matter of hours. Basically, even with nuclear weapons, we probably couldn’t stop them. This is their primary deterrent. North Korea also has a very advanced cyber warfare capability, as the folks over at Sony Pictures discovered. They also work alongside the Chinese, and I suspect they have learned a lot from their Chinese colleagues.
My personal view is that their cyber capability is as dangerous or moreso than their fledgling nuclear arsenal. The US Intelligence Community has already publicly admitted that China and Russia can take down the national power grid and we couldn’t stop them. It’s highly likely that North Korea could seriously disrupt our cyber systems if they wanted to.
As to their nuclear capability, recent reports indicate that they have, or are about to, create a nuclear bomb small enough to fit into an ICBM. The problem is that the ICBMs they have been testing lately are only technically an ICBM, which is defined as a launch vehicle with a range of over 5,500 miles. The North Korean Hwasong-14 (I think) can make that range, but only if it doesn’t carry a payload. This might be one reason why North Korea is threatening Guam, which isn’t as far away as Alaska or Seattle. The most recent tests also indicate that their re-entry technology doesn’t work.
Unlike Iran, whose nuclear program was mainly a bargaining chip to trade for the lifting of sanctions, North Korea is highly unlikely to give up their nukes. Kim Jong Un has taken note of what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi after they gave up their WMD programs. More unsettling is their understanding that if they don’t use their nukes early in a shooting war, they will lose them. For that reason, North Korea is believed to be developing a first-use doctrine, including giving launch command authority to officials further down the organizational table, just in case the top leadership is taken out in a decapitation strike. The trick for the rest of us is knowing where the “red line” is that would provoke an attack. North Korea is also developing mobile missile technology to make it harder to take out their assets in a pre-emptive strike.
Now let’s look at the United States. Since the election of Donald Trump, critical portions of the government necessary to meet the crisis before us have descended into chaos, or even ceased to exist. One of Trump’s first actions was to fire the most senior officials at the State Department, removing literally centuries of expertise in international affairs. Among those dedicated men and women were the very people who understand North Korea and how to deal with her. Trump also kicked the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Director of National Intelligence off the Principals Committee of the National Security Council. This was an astonishingly bad move; it basically meant that while they were gone, US foreign policy at the highest levels was flying blind. They have since been restored, but there remains a deep distrust between Trump and the Intelligence Community. Trump cannot navigate this problem successfully without good intelligence–assuming he’s smart enough to use it wisely if he has it, which he almost certainly isn’t.
But there is another problem that hampers our ability to deal with North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. A devastating expose published in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis revealed that the Energy Department is in complete chaos. Seasoned professionals are fleeing in droves, with few if any replacing them. Those who have been appointed to oversee the agency have no idea what the agency even does, nor do they seem to care about anything except dismantling it.
Most of our nuclear intelligence is produced by the Energy Department. This surprises a lot of people, but it’s been true since the Manhattan Project, out of which the Energy Department eventually grew. They are also responsible for the protection and security of the power grid, which is the cornerstone of US critical infrastructure, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security. If the power grid goes, it all goes; communications, transportation, banking and credit, manufacturing, commercial activity and, yes, national defense.
I’ll be blunt: Donald Trump is a far greater threat in this crisis than Kim Jong Un. It’s not even close. Merely by indulging in his trademark bluster promising “fire” and “fury” or whatever, he wiped out $1 trillion in value from world bond markets. My suspicion is that with his State Department and Energy Departments hamstrung, and his refusal to trust his Intelligence Community generally, Kim saw an opportunity to gain an advantage over Trump, and he’s playing Trump like a cheap kazoo. What Kim’s endgame is remains unclear, as usual. But if one of his objectives is to undermine the legitimacy of the United States as a world leader, then the plan is likely to succeed brilliantly.