Why North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is an existential threat

Just to demonstrate what the world has in store when Iran cheats its way to a nuclear weapon and puts it on top of one of the missiles it is currently testing, the Washington Free Beacon ran a story about a new North Korean missile, a variant of the KN-08, that recently showed up at a military parade in Pyongyang. The missile, which was carried on top of a Chinese mobile carrier, is said to be capable of hitting the United States, according to the commander of NorthCom, Admiral William Gortney.

North Korea had agreed to freeze its nuclear program under an international agreement in the 1990s called the “Agreed Framework,” an arrangement similar to the one recently executed with Iran. However, the Pyongyang government continued to pursue its nuclear weapons program clandestinely. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear test. Despite assurances that it had stopped its nuclear weapons program a second time, it conducted a bigger test in 2009.

Currently, it is unknown how many nuclear weapons North Korea actually possesses. The Institute for Science and International Security estimates that by 2016, North Korea will have enough fissile material to make 14 to 48 nuclear weapons, assuming each had 20 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium.

The fact that the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un, a certifiably crazy person, has nuclear weapons, or at least the ability to build them in short order, is terrifying. The prospect of North Korea having a missile that could park a nuclear weapon over an American city is an existential threat. The only thing standing between North Korea and having that ability is creating a nuclear device that can fit inside the nosecone of a rocket. If it already has that capability, no one in the American intelligence community is saying.

The United States has expended a lot of resources to counter the threat of North Korean missiles. Aegis-equipped American warships are permanently stationed in the waters off North Korea. Land-based ABM batteries have been erected in Alaska and California. The anti-missile system is hooked up to radar and satellite sensors.

The military option to take out North Korea’s nuclear capacity would be costly. Even if such a strike were to succeed, North Korea has a large, powerful army just across the Demilitarized Zone between it and South Korea. Kim would without a doubt launch a full-scale invasion of his neighbor, starting a second Korean War. Even if such an effort were to be beaten back, it would result in a great deal of loss of blood and treasure. Seoul, South Korea’s capital, lies just south of the DMZ and would likely be reduced to rubble by North Korean long-range artillery.

Nothing stands between Kim and carrying out his blood-curdling threats to visit fire on the United States but the possible lack of capability to do so and, perhaps, the promptings of China, which might look askance at a nuclear attack against one of its principal trading partners. If such a strike were to take place, even if stopped by American missile defense systems, the only appropriate response would be to launch a counter attack against North Korea, either to effect regime change or, in an extreme case of the strike getting through, to wipe it off the map. Either outcome is a nightmare and should serve as a warning for inattention to the problem of nuclear proliferation.

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