Can We Survive a Nuclear North Korea?

Can We Survive a Nuclear North Korea?

By Sean Culligan and John McLaughlin


Because North Korean missiles could very well reach the United States.

By Sean Culligan and John McLaughlin

OZY Senior Columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS.

Time to manage our expectations. Having most likely lost the battle to keep nukes out of North Korean hands, the problem turns now to dealing with a nuclear-armed Pyongyang.

The U.S. military still has options, but it’s increasingly likely that one of them is not a pre-emptive strike to neutralize North Korea’s capability. Why? 

  • The program is now too large, too advanced and too dispersed, with much of it hidden deep underground.
  • The North has the ability to retaliate with massive artillery strikes on heavily populated areas in South Korea.
  • Pyongyang has an intermediate-range missile force that can hit the South, Japan and other neighbors. Many of its missiles are mobile, making them harder to track and target. It is also starting to use solid fuel in some of them, which makes them more agile because it can dispense with transporting cumbersome liquid fuel. Finally, it already may have the capability to mount nuclear warheads on some of its intermediate-range missiles.

Data is still emerging on North Korea’s latest missile test on July 24, but it was another attempt to refine its version of an intercontinental missile that could hit the United States. It appears to have had a larger second stage than the one that was tested on July 4, which probably accounts for the greater projected range. Estimates vary on the number of nuclear weapons it already has, ranging from eight to as many as 30.

… when flattened out over a normal missile trajectory, this means [Pyongyang’s missiles] could reach into the central United States.

This latest missile went nearly straight up for about 2,300 miles; when flattened out over a normal missile trajectory, this means it could reach into the central United States. That said, North Korea probably still needs to master a few things, including accuracy. An early video of this test suggests that the North cannot yet shield a re-entry-stage warhead against the heat of atmospheric re-entry. It is also uncertain whether it can yet miniaturize a nuclear warhead sufficiently to fit on the missile’s small third stage.

So now what? American leaders are now forced into a highly complex foreign policy strategy when it comes to Pyongyang — one that requires great agility and close coordination across government departments. Donald Trump’s administration has not yet had to deal with an issue so complicated and so dependent on effective teamwork.


Trump’s team deserves credit for responding forcefully to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in April. But the instrument they used — a cruise missile attack — was a single blunt instrument, compared to the complicated mix of policies North Korea requires. Trump’s appointment of highly disciplined former Marine General and Homeland Security secretary John Kelly as White House chief of staff may help, particularly if he can help national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster bring order to the cross-agency coordination of foreign policy.

What are some things they must consider? Most of the strategy fits under the broad heading of deterrence. Although this was the heart of our strategy during the long Cold War, it took years of warily circling with the Soviet Union to develop some mutually understood rules. With North Korea, we are dealing with a regime that has no such experience, headed by a leader that no U.S. official has met.

Still, deterrence can work if orchestrated systematically, using all the tools at our disposal. The first simple requirement is messaging this to the North: Using your nuclear weaponry will draw a devastating response certain to eliminate your regime. This would provoke frenetic saber-rattling, but as the director of national intelligence recently said, Kim Jong-un is an “unusual person but probably not crazy.” In other words, he will understand, and his overriding goal will be to preserve the regime.

We can underline this with what the military calls “flexible deterrent options.” These are steps short of kinetic engagement that demonstrate power and resolve, such as this week’s flight over the Korean Peninsula by U.S. supersonic fighter jets and bombers and the U.S. demonstration launch of an ICBM over the Pacific this week. Reinforcing such demonstrations? South Korea’s plan to boost the explosive power of conventional warheads on missiles it has pointing north.

Missile defense has a deterrent role as well. South Korean leader Moon Jae-in just removed a hold he had placed on the deployment of a major anti-ballistic missile system the United States wants to station in the South. Japan, meanwhile, says it wants to beef up missile defense. In May, Washington also demonstrated its ability to shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile in a test over the Pacific, although this system is not yet fail-safe. Although generally deemed too expensive and difficult, we can also look again at the feasibility of a space-based missile intercept system.

Tougher sanctions on the North, such as those just authorized by Congress, can add to the pressure, but sanctions alone will never be enough given the regime’s apparent disregard for the welfare of its populace. China can be helpful, but we can’t “outsource” the problem to Beijing, the way President Trump has suggested via Twitter:

We can get Beijing to tighten some economic screws but only in concert with a larger package — and Beijing is more likely to be helpful if our package includes some talks with the North, to which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears open. In fact, there is probably room for engagement with the North. South Korea’s leader has expressed a desire to try this. Such talks have not worked well in the past, but when combined with all the other tactics, there is scope for some incremental progress.

It’s easy to dismiss seemingly slow-moving diplomatic and military efforts, but in conflict there is merit in establishing a process and a forum for hashing out issues. And who knows — something could come of it, if only talking the North down from its customary hysteria or maneuvering the country toward an intermediate step, such as a freeze on production of nuclear explosive material. Adding diplomatic ingenuity to military and economic pressure has produced wins in the past.

There are no guarantees of progress, but these are the options given our new reality. It brings to mind President John Kennedy’s sentiment, in a different context, about the challenges of a “long twilight struggle.”

That is almost certainly what we are facing with The Hermit Kingdom.