How About We Take Their Word For It

Do we really want the North Koreans to prove they can launch a nuke with a missile?

"DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low."

Well, it's not quite 16 words, but this sure created a ruckus.

During an April 11 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican, quoted this mistakenly unclassified passage from a March 2013 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency entitled Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program.

"Dynamic Threat Assessment" is a silly name for an intelligence product. (Can you imagine a "static" threat assessment?) Essentially, the Defense Department has a number of contingency plans -- the DIA generates these threat assessments to support the planning process.

In theory, these assessments are coordinated through the intelligence community, but DIA is the author. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has pointed out, others do not agree with what the DIA wrote.

Let me walk you through the language and explain what I think this argument is about. (I've also posted a Guide for the Perplexed at ArmsControlWonk.com.)

Let's start with the term "moderate confidence." Moderate confidence, according to a handy chart published with the 2007 National Intelligence Assessment on Iran, "generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated to warrant a higher level of confidence." In other words, if the North Koreans, and perhaps a defector or two, say so, and it is not impossible, that's moderate confidence.

The two important phrases are "capable of delivery by ballistic missiles" and "reliability will be low."

"Capable of delivery" refers to size -- the mass and dimensions of the warhead. I presume this means the DIA believes North Korea's warheads are small enough, which is not a surprise. In 1999, the DIA believed that North Korea could manufacture a warhead as light as 750 kilograms. That's about the weight that a Nodong missile could carry, although it's still pretty heavy for an ICBM, especially given the need for a couple hundred kilograms of heat shielding. Still, it's far below the 6,000-kilogram device we dropped on Nagasaki.

The issue of reliability refers to whether the warhead will work, particularly after being subjected to the very bumpy ride of missile delivery. In other words, the warheads are small enough, but they may not be tough enough to survive the trip.

It seems that this is where the disagreement lies. General Clapper explained that difference in confidence concerns "the actual ability of the North Koreans to make a weapon that will work in a missile...[N]either we nor the North Koreans know whether they have such capability. D.I.A. has a higher confidence level than the rest of the community on that capability. That's the difference."

At issue seems to be a view that unless the North Koreans prove it to us, we aren't buying it. Statements by both the Pentagon and DNI emphasize that North Korea has not "fully" demonstrated a nuclear-armed ICBM:

Pentagon: "[I]t would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage."

Director of National Intelligence: "North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile."

It is worth noting that at least one other country has never fully tested its ICBM capabilities: the United States.

Yep, that's right, we've never put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM and fired it the full distance. In the 1960s, we had a big debate about this in the United States. Here is how a 1961 Senate Armed Services Committee report explained the situation:

Who knows whether an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead will actually work? Each of the constituent elements has been tested, it is true. Each of them, however, has not been tested under circumstances which would be attendant upon the firing of such a missile in anger. By this the committee means an intercontinental ballistic missile will carry its nuclear warhead to great heights subjecting it to intense cold. It will then arch down and upon reentering the earth's atmosphere subject the nuclear warhead to intense heat. Who knows what will happen to the many delicate mechanisms involved in the nuclear warhead as it is subjected to these two extremes of temperature?

(I am indebted to Donald Mackenzie for digging up this gem and publishing it in Inventing Accuracy.)

Ultimately, the United States conducted a partial demonstration -- something called Operation Frigate Bird. Frigate Bird was the only time the United States fired a live nuclear warhead on a ballistic trajectory. (There was also a series of high-altitude nuclear explosions where the warheads only went up.)

This didn't settle the issue. Barry Goldwater actually campaigned in 1964 warning that absent a full test "we are building a Maginot line of missiles." He explained in Where I Stand: "The fact is that not one of our advanced ICBMs has ever been subjected to a full test (of all component systems, including warheads) under simulated battle conditions."

At some point, everyone realized that this was an insane conversation to be having and it just sort of went away.

The Chinese had the same concern about their nuclear program in the 1960s. Initially they tried driving their warheads over bumpy roads in trucks, trying to simulate the shock and vibrations of flight on a missile. (How would you like to be a Chinese teamster?)

Ultimately, the Chinese decided to conduct an operationally realistic test. They put a live nuclear weapon on a DF-2 ballistic missile and fired it across China. What could possibly have gone wrong?

Which brings me back to North Korea. Why are we demanding that they show us each and every little increment of progress? Do we really want them to put a live nuclear warhead on a Musudan and fire it over Japan just to shut us up? The North Koreans have preferred to test underground -- whether to deny the United States intelligence about their weapons program or out of some heretofore undetected concern for the environment.

One of the reasons Clapper was reluctant to share more information about North Korea's miniaturization program was that he wanted to avoid "further enhancement of Kim Jong Un's narrative" -- something that strikes me as a pretty lousy reason. Let's not fool ourselves. The North Koreans have said they have miniaturized a warhead, which is certainly plausible given that they've taken three shots at it.

For what it is worth, I believe the takeaway ought to be not that the harmless North Koreans can never do these things, but that they can and will continue to build a larger, more sophisticated arsenal until we make it worth their while to do something else with their limited resources.

Double-dog daring them to prove it, on the other hand, is not helpful.

KNS/AFP/Getty Images

National Security

The Map of Death

What North Korea's missiles are really aimed at.

It is hard to say when the disparagement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program started, but I like June 2000 as my cultural ground zero. That month, the venerable news magazine the Economist put a picture of a Kim Jong Il on its cover with the headline "Greetings, Earthlings."

After that, Kim Jong Il became funny. There were internet memes ("Kim Jong Il looking at things"), T-shirts courtesy of The Onion, and, oh yes, that song-and-dance number in Team America: World Police: "I'm So Ronery."

Even academics got into the act. Bruce Cummings famously opened a chapter in North Korea: Another Country by asking:

What can he possibly be thinking, standing there in his pear-shaped polyester pantsuit, pointy-toed elevator shoes, oversize sunglasses of malevolent tint, an arrogant curl to his feminine lip, an immodest pot-belly, a perpetual bad-hair day? He is thinking: get me out of here.

The North Koreans deserve some of this. North Korea's propaganda is so vitriolic that it can be hard to take seriously, a point that we Westerners make to North Koreans in many Track II meetings. When the Colorado legislature passed a harmless resolution urging North Korea to return the U.S.S. Pueblo, the U.S. ship seized in 1968, the North Koreans sent the sponsor of the bill a postcard inviting him to come and get it. (What's Korean for molon labe?)

The tendency to see North Korea as vaguely ridiculous has helped make the country's nuclear weapons program seem silly, too.

Which brings us to Kim Jong Un, son and successor to Kim Jong Il, and his bizarre wall map of nuclear death and destruction.

The initial response has been mirth. Wits in the Southwest, noting that one of the targets appears to be near Austin, Texas, immediately started a twitter hashtag: #whyaustin, suggesting that maybe Kim is irritated about missing Prince perform at SXSW or with his barbecue options in Pyongyang (although bulgogi is awfully tasty). Texas Governor Rick Perry even took the opportunity to shill for Austin, arguing that North Korea targeted the city because of its excellent business climate. "The individuals in North Korea understand that Austin, Texas, is a very important city in North America, as do corporate CEOs and others who are moving here in record numbers," he said. You can't make this stuff up.

Maybe, though, it is time to take all this just a bit more seriously. At the very least, when another country is making an overt threat to use nuclear weapons against specific places, it might be worth asking WTF?

So, WTF?

The easiest place to start is with the Map of Death.

One target is clear: Washington, DC. North Korean officials have talked about striking Washington on any number of occasions, so this does not surprise.

The other clear target is obviously Hawaii. The North Koreans spelled this out in their statement, and Hawaii is home to U.S. Pacific Command. Mele Kalikimaka.

Now, the other two targets are less clear. One is definitely in Southern California. My best guess is San Diego, which is the principal homeport for Pacific Fleet. There is a chance, I suppose, that Vandenberg Air Force Base is the target.

The last target -- initially thought by many to be Austin -- is the hardest one to make out. One of Kim's generals and his hat -- you just don't see a man in a kepi anymore! -- gets in the way. If the target is in Texas, one intriguing possibility is not Austin, but nearby San Antonio, sometimes called Cyber City, USA and home to Lackland Air Force Base and Air Force Cyber Command. The North Koreans have complained a lot lately about cyberattacks. It may seem odd, but North Korea is very worried about maintaining command and control of its nuclear forces.

The line seems a little far north for San Antonio, raising the possibility that the target lies behind the general's silly hat -- possibly Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, LA, home of Air Force Global Strike Command.

If one has but four targets to select, these four reflect a certain logic. North Korea is targeting both the national and theater leadership in Washington and Hawaii, as well as major U.S. military installations for naval operations (San Diego) and either long-range bomber missions (if it is Barksdale) or cyberattacks (if it is Lackland).

The message is not terribly subtle, but then again we are talking about North Korean propaganda. The identification of specific U.S. targets is the most recent in a string of North Korean statements over the past year about targeting the United States, starting with the announcement that North Korea had established a "Strategic Rocket Forces Command." Since then, the North Koreans have spoken repeatedly about developing the ability to strike the United States.

North Korea does not, at the moment, have a demonstrated capability to put a nuclear weapon on the U.S. homeland. Dan Pinkston noted that, in the Korean phrase for "U.S. Mainland Strike Plan," the word "plan" carries an aspirational quality. I believe North Korea is moving toward an operational nuclear capability, but the details are obscure. North Korea may be deploying the road-mobile KN-08 missile that it paraded through Kim Il Sung square last spring, or may be sitting on either a three-stage Unha missile for military purposes or something even bigger. I am not persuaded that North Korea must flight-test an ICBM before it deploys one, but not doing flight testing does undermine the credibility of the missile threat. It's not time to panic just yet.

But it is important to take these threats seriously, if only to discern the signal in the cacophony of threats and bluster. The current bellicosity is not normal. Although North Korea has long traded in insults and hyperbole, this seems different to me. The threats and assertions that have followed the collapse of the Leap Day Deal in early 2012 have been very personal. While we have largely focused on the U.S.-DPRK dynamic, the relationship between North and South Korea is equally important. The two countries have spent the past year exchanging threats to kill each other's leadership, something that is not a purely idle threat.

Last spring, South Korea announced it was developing new ballistic and cruise missiles, noting that the latter could "fly through Kim Jong Un's window." The North Koreans took that statement very, very badly. They interpreted it as a very deliberate threat to decapitate the North Korean leadership and responded with a very vitriolic campaign depicting Lee Myung Bak as a dead rat. Clearly, the South Koreans had found a sensitive spot, which they pushed again a few weeks ago when they released more footage of ballistic and cruise missiles, noting again that window-sized targets were in play. The North Koreans have issued a series of statements that make very clear how serious they take threats to decapitate the North Korean government.

The current situation, then, strikes me as particularly dangerous. The North Koreans have grown used to provoking the South Koreans with relative impunity. 2010 was a very rough year, with the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The South Koreans are clearly tired of taking a beating at the hands of the North Koreans, although I worry that all this talk of precision strikes is an escapist fantasy. North Korea could easily push South Korea too far, leading the South Koreans to dramatically escalate the situation in a way that would be dangerous and unpredictable. Taking a shot at Kim Jong Un and the rest of the leadership might sound like a good idea over coffee and donuts during a simulation -- but South Korea better not miss in real life.

I suspect that North Korea's sudden focus on targeting the United States reflects this. It serves as a warning that the United States has a stake in restraining South Korea. As the North and South exchange increasingly bellicose threats about targeting the other's leadership, the South Koreans have given every indication they might do something unpredictable -- apparently in the hope of deterring another provocation. Pyongyang may well believe that the United States could constrain South Korea's response. If so, that message isn't getting through. The United States and South Korea have discussed expanding the latitude of South Korean units to respond to local provocations, something I like to think of as the threat that leaves everything to chance. (That's a Schelling joke, by the way.)

The North Koreans, too, have signaled that they have delegated the "final authority" to retaliate against a provocation. Both sides are acting like teenagers in a game of chicken, claiming to have thrown the steering wheels out of their cars.

How we get through this depends in no small part on two relatively inexperienced leaders.

South Korea has a new president, Madam Park Geun-hye, who is understandably reluctant to set a precedent of taking North Korea's abuse. (The first draft did not say "abuse.") The fact that her mother was killed in a 1974 North Korean assassination attempt on her father adds an interesting complication to the situation.

Another complication is that the North Koreans, for their part, have the sort of views about a woman in authority that would make Archie Bunker uncomfortable. North Korea has unleashed a barrage of sexist propaganda, starting with references to a "venomous swish of a skirt." (They are kind of pigs.) That brings us to our other new leader: Kim Jong Un, whom the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff derisively called a "young lad." Whether a young and untested North Korean leader might be backed into stupid decisions out of some sexist worry about being pushed around by a South Korean woman is an unpleasant possibility. (Maybe we can send Kim some Thatcher DVDs or a arrange a trip to the Falklands.)

All of this is to say that the situation is extremely volatile. And we sometimes forget that, for all our confidence in the stability of deterrence, the leaders making decisions in the middle of all this are human beings with their own faults and frailties.

KCNA/John Hudson