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By Ryan Pickrell
North Korea regularly threatens nuclear war against the U.S., a country perceived in Pyongyang as the greatest threat to its long-term survival. It is unlikely, however, that the North has developed the long-range missile technology required to strike the continental U.S.
Still, it is working tirelessly to develop a reliable, nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile and may be there in a matter of years.
“There is a real possibility that North Korea will be able to hit the U.S. with a nuclear-armed missile by the end of the first Trump term,” K.T. McFarland, the deputy White House national security adviser, previously remarked.
“We don’t know where they are on the path, but we know what path they are on,” Bruce Klingner, who specializes in Korean and Japanese affairs as the senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
North Korea has launched satellites using Taepodong-style rockets, which could potentially serve as the technological foundation for an ICBM. The country has developed improved rocket engines that are better than most experts previously suspected. Also, the North appears to be working on two road-mobile ICBMs, the KN-08 and KN-14.
But, while the country has made clear progress, it has not yet demonstrated re-entry vehicle capability, and is still developing a suitable nuclear warhead.
Were North Korea to launch a nuclear-armed missile at a foreign enemy, the two countries most likely to find themselves in the cross hairs are South Korea and Japan, collectively home to roughly 180 million people and around 75,000 U.S. troops. In the event that North Korea decided to fire on either of these two countries, a decision which would not take lightly, the Korean People’s Army could strike military bases and strategic assets, densely-populated civilian targets, or both.
Particularly disconcerting is that “the North Koreans say both,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, explained to TheDCNF. “They hope the shock will cause us to recoil, and if it does not, they hope the damage slows us down.”
At the same time, North Korea has threatened, and even trained, to strike strategic assets, major ports, and critical military bases.
Days after the U.S. and South Korea announced plans to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile shield on South Korean soil, the North said it would turn Seongju, the deployment site, into a “sea of fire and a pile of ashes.”
When U.S. troops conduct joint military drills with allies for a possible conflict on the Korean peninsula, North Korea often drills as well, typically for a conventional or nuclear strike on allied troops, weapons, and defense systems.
During last year’s Foal Eagle drills, annual joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea for a contingency on the peninsula, North Korea launched two short-range missiles into waters off its east coast. “If we push the buttons to annihilate the enemies even right now, all bases of provocations will be reduced to seas in flames and ashes,” the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported at the time. Images of the maps from the launch and open source analysis indicate that the Korean People’s Army was rehearsing an attack on the port of Busan, where the USS Ohio, a nuclear-powered submarine, had just arrived for a port call.
North Korea fired four extended-range scuds into the Sea of Japan during this year’s drills. KCNA reported that the artillerymen of the KPA were “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan.”
Open-source analysis of the maps shown in the North Korean propaganda videos following the launch suggested that North Korea was simulating a nuclear attack on U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan, where the only forward-deployed squadron of Marine Corps F-35s is stationed.
“The U.S. and South Korea are practicing invading North Korea. North Korea is practicing nuking those forces,” Lewis previously told TheDCNF, noting a distinct change in North Korean missile launches.
Weapons reliability, as well as possible reunification goals, could impact North Korea’s choice of target.
“North Korean missiles, while improved, are still not all that accurate. Thus, while Pyongyang may prefer to target U.S. military facilities in Japan with its limited nuclear arsenal, it may also choose to fire some missiles toward large population centers in an attempt to rapidly shift the political cost of conflict,” Rodger Baker, Vice President of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform, told TheDCNF. “Pyongyang is less likely to use its nuclear arsenal in strikes on South Korea, but may use chemical weapons to disrupt and slow any U.S. advance,” he further commented.