When President Obama candidly warned his successor about the greatest threat his new administration would face, he wasn't referring to global warming, or even to an overheating Mideast crisis inflamed by Iranian ayatollahs. Rather, the advice centered upon more imminent, direct, rapidly accelerating and catastrophic dangers posed to America's mainland by a hot-headed, rogue regime in North Korea.
As Adm. Bill Gortney, Commander of the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense reported in October of 2015, "We assess that they [North Korea] have the capability to reach the homeland with a nuclear weapon from a rocket." Four months later, Pyongyang successfully launched a "Taepodong-3" missile with an estimated range of 6,300 miles. The shortest distance from North Korea to Los Angeles, Calif. is 5,800 miles.
Last year, in another breakthrough, North Korea successfully launched a "KN-11" rocket from a submarine, a feat only seven other countries have accomplished. This technology is particularly difficult to master because the missile must be forced out of the water by high pressure — and then, the engine must quickly ignite to initiate flight. Although North Korea presently has only one old submarine capable of firing such missiles, satellite images reveal more under construction.
On May 14 of this year, Pyongyang successfully launched a new intermediate-range surface-to-surface "Hwasong-12" missile that is believed capable of reaching targets up to 2,800 miles away — including the U.S. islands of Guam and Midway. Although the test rocket traveled horizontally only 500 miles, this is because it was fired at a very steep angle to avoid flying over neighboring countries.
The Hwasong could serve as the first stage of an intercontinental ballistic missile to achieve longer ranges. Consistent with claims made by Kim Jong-un in a New Year’s speech, North Korea is expected to conduct its first ICBM test this year.
Notably, this new rocket’s high-performance liquid-fueled engine appears to have been developed from scratch rather than by adapting a Russian or Chinese design. The single-stage vehicle is also road-mobile, making it more difficult to find and destroy.
North Korea has likely overcome a key obstacle necessary to detonate a nuclear gamma-ray-emitting electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device capable of devastating damage to America’s power grid. Accomplishing this requires a reentry vehicle capable of withstanding the heat and vibration of the fall through the atmosphere from an orbital launch trajectory. U.S. and South Korean officials have confirmed North Korean media reports that the Hwasong’s test warhead survived and transmitted data.
On May 21 — one week after the Hwasong launch — Pyongyang tested another relatively new "Pukguksong-2" missile that appears to be a modified Chinese submarine-launched design with a shorter range of about 1,000 miles. The solid-fueled rocket can rapidly be prepared for deployment and moved to remote areas using a domestically-produced transporter. The media in North Korea has reported that it will be mass-produced.
All diplomatic efforts and sanctions to arrest this North Korean threat have thus far proven fruitless. Even so, unlike his father and grandfather who used their missile program to leverage economic concessions and revenues from weapon exports, the new dictator has evidenced absolutely no interest in negotiating with any country. Since taking power in 2011, Kim Jong-un has not met with world leaders or even traveled outside his hermit kingdom.
Modernization and expansion of North Korea’s nuclear warhead and delivery system arsenals may get a boost from the election of South Korea’s new President Moon Jae-in who campaigned on a return to an inter-Korea "sunshine era" of diplomatic and economic engagement with Pyongyang. A high-tech South Korean factory located about 60 miles north of Pyongyang is capable of churning out intricate parts that can be used in missiles and nuclear centrifuges.
We also can’t depend upon intervention by Beijing to curtail this existential North Korea nuclear threat. Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama all relied upon China to pressure Pyongyang, with no evidence to date of any influence.
While Beijing may feign willingness to help out, their leaders fully recognize dangers posed by severe sanctions that will foment chaos and instability to drive floods of indigent refuges across their border. North Korea also serves as a useful military and economic buffer against the West’s zone of influence.
Nevertheless, passivity hasn’t worked either. As former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton observed in a May 23 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, "Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Obama did not obsess over negotiations with North Korea (preferring to obsess over negotiations with Iran), instead, he propounded the doctrine of 'strategic patience', a synonym for doing nothing, which proved equally dangerous as making foolish concessions."
Feckless doctrines of serial appeasement and procrastination have now brought our nation and world to the brink of unthinkable disaster. They must urgently be replaced by a doctrine of strategic strength.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture. He is the author of “Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom”(2015) and “Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax” (2012). Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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