North Korea strategies: how scared should you be?

by on July 11, 2017 at 2:03 am in Current Affairs, History, Political Science, Science | Permalink

Here is a good Tobin Harshaw interview with Jeffrey Lewis, here is one good bit, scary in more than one regard:

Nuclear-armed missiles are a 1950s-era technology.


Well, there is a difference between the range the missile demonstrated last week, which was about 4,000 miles, and what the simulations we do at the Middlebury Institute suggest the missile may be capable of. My colleages, along with David Wright at the Union of Concerned Scientists, looked very closely at the launch of a new intermediate-range missile in May, as well as this one, trying to measure the missile and model its performance. It seems to me the North Korea cut the engines a bit early here, possibly so they did not overfly Japan. But they have been very clear their targets are in the continental U.S. — the Pacific Fleet in San Diego, Washington, and lately New York City — not Alaska. And our initial modeling of this missile suggests that it should be able to deliver a nuclear-weapon sized payload to most, if not all, those places. We’re still modeling away though.


I don’t think the North Koreans are going to deliberately start a nuclear war, but I think they might use those weapons if they thought a war was coming and they needed to get a jump on the U.S. and South Korea. And, despite the poor track record of decapitation strikes, the idea really frightens the North Koreans. But instead of making them behave, I suspect it will lead them to do things that I really don’t like, such as releasing nuclear weapons to lower level missile units.

Food for thought, the interview is interesting throughout.

1 carlospln July 11, 2017 at 2:42 am

What the hell is so scary about it?

That the USA actually had an agreement in place to provide NK with a light water reactor, and access for its own N-inspectors within the country 15 yrs ago?

Or that it knew what PAK was doing with A.Q. Khan in the early ’80’s, but chose to turn away, as it used the ISI as a money vector to the Taliban?

Grow up.

2 GoneWithTheWind July 11, 2017 at 10:21 am

“I don’t think the North Koreans are going to deliberately start a nuclear war”

He needs to understand that there is only one North Korean who decides to go to war or not and he is demonstrably mentally ill. It is extremely unlikely that the U.S. or South Korea will start a war with North Korea. But it is far more likely that North Korea will start a war with the South or the U.S.

3 Thiago Ribeiro July 11, 2017 at 10:28 am

“He needs to understand that there is only one North Korean who decides to go to war or not and he is demonstrably mentally ill.”
But is he? He is doing the job he i herit (keep the family in charge) pretty well so far. Cruel, ruthless, soulless? Sure, bur he seems a reparionzl tyrant, maybe even one, as Mrs. Thatcher would have said, “we can do buisiness with”. I still don’t see how he is different from American darlings such as the Mujahideen, Pakistan or the Saudis.

4 Pshrnk July 11, 2017 at 11:46 am

“there is only one North Korean who decides to go to war or not and he is demonstrably mentally ill” Please demonstrate

5 Sam the Sham July 11, 2017 at 7:10 pm

Do you seriously think Dennis Rodman is mentally sound?

6 Belle Époque July 11, 2017 at 3:53 am

South Korea has gone from one of the world’s poorest countries in the 1950s to one of the richest, not from natural resources but industry and trade. That same capacity slumbers in the north.

Decapitate the regime in Pyongyang, and eliminate the risk they pose.
Do not occupy the country.
Do not unify with the south, but establish a multi-decade Marshall-esque Plan to redevelop the north.
Include a promised referendum for unification to be put to the public only when/if economic parity with the south is reached.

7 dan1111 July 11, 2017 at 6:48 am

You make it sound so easy.

8 john July 11, 2017 at 8:55 am

that true, the solution will not be easy but it’s not incorrect in terms of approach — except to keep regional stability the marshall plan-esque solution would need to come from China, and perhaps some from Russia. (TC might have something to say about that value though). The other thing is (forget where I read it) but China may have little interest in a wealthier and more commercially (versus the current militarily productive focus) successful DPRK as it would be more interested in western goods than those produced in China.

Why it’s not been possilbe to draft a peace between the north and south seems to be the undiscussed elephant in the room. With a peace signed that allows for both to exist the justification for nuclear arms is gone. The need to large standing armies greatly diminishs and any peace terms should include scaling back in an orderly manner. I suspect one of the problems here is that the Kim regime is simply not interested in only having the north. They did resort to a milirary solution when Russia kept them out of the UN organized democratic voting that was supposed to be for the entire country. They seem to have been claiming the entire time they are the only “true” Korean goverment and it’s pretty clear the familay has visions of godhood.

Unfortunately I also have some fears that China might see a war started by DPRK, even that escalated to a small nuclear war, would leave them in a stronger position regionally so have less interest in putting all the pressure they can on Kim. They certainly are willing to let a lot of trade with the counrty occur and keep sending defectors they catch back (unless the defectors as young women and then many are sold as child brides).

We could have a resonable solution but that requires reasonable people making the decisions — and the desire for what all would call reasonable outcomes which may be questionable given the completing incentives and interests. To call Kim or that regime reasonable is a very large stretch. Same for Putin and the current Russia. Xi might also fall into that bucket as he seems to see visions of old Chinese hegemony in the region and could be dreaming of a Xi dynastic empire.

9 Ricardo July 11, 2017 at 12:59 pm

How is a Marshall-esque plan without occupation going to work? You need basic institutions of government on the ground run by honest people who won’t simply embezzle all the money pouring in. The reason no one has tried a decapitation strike against Pyongyang is that they have missiles pointed at Seoul and we don’t want to sacrifice tens of thousands of innocent lives there while not even having a credible plan for what comes after.

10 Falstaff July 11, 2017 at 3:24 pm

Iron Dome.

Assuming they can create a credible plan for what comes after, the reasonable risk of collateral damage seems worthwhile.

11 Potato July 12, 2017 at 12:18 am

Iron dome is great for missiles/rockets. That’s irrelevant. The danger is the artillery pieces, tens of thousands of which are pointed at Seoul. They’re probably not well maintained. They probably don’t have expertise. But they can kill something just by pointing south.

12 Captain not so obvious July 11, 2017 at 5:09 am

There is only one thing to be feared : USA/EU/UK ‘s own military industrial financial complex … All the rest are made up boogeymans which are only useful to justify the budget of several three letter agencies.

13 Mark Thorson July 11, 2017 at 5:49 am

We shall have a new Korean War. We need one. Our military needs wars from time to time to keep their fitness to fight a war. We haven’t had a real war since Gulf War 2, so another war is due.

14 carlospln July 11, 2017 at 6:43 am

Time to chalk up another hash in the ‘Lose’ column, Mark?

Life is cheap to Americans.

15 Art Deco July 11, 2017 at 7:32 am

The military wins on the field and then the politicians crap out. Not the military’s problem.

16 carlospln July 11, 2017 at 4:43 pm

“The military wins on the field and then the politicians crap out”

Where? Afghanistan?

When? Vietnam?

Show your work.

17 Potato July 12, 2017 at 12:39 am

Yes, and yes.

The Vietnam war was over in 1969. The Afghan war was over too in the summer of 2012.

The Taliban bled themselves out during the surge. I can’t comment further.

I don’t even want to talk about Vietnam. It’s so stupid only a democracy could make that mistake. The war was won. Phoenix and the disastrous Tet offensive had destroyed the Vietcong as a fighting force and political structure. It was over and baby boomers decided that being South Korea was imperialism , genocide, and the holocaust. That’s what the country would have been. A beacon of freedom and pop music and we would be laughing about V-Dramas and cartoons.

But I’m sure it was worth it 🤔.

And only a democracy would remove all troops after the surge instead of holding onto the territorial gains. And only a democracy would let Pakistan declare war on our military and pretend they’re a friend.

But when you’re led by idiots and traitors…..

What I’m confident in is that Chelsea Clinton will be rich. And the Trumps. And the obamas. Those girls will be million or billionaires. Chicago politics achieved.

And the children of congressmen.

And I’ll bury another friend. But he will deserve it according to the Democratic Party. To paraphrase Bill or Kevin drum/ vox commenters/readers they’re evil and deserve to be killed. Vox is borderline saying our soldiers are almost Nazis and it’s the holocaust. Ezra Klein. Can you imagine what our soldiers think about your website?

You’re doing the right thing, maximize views.

18 Dick the Butcher July 11, 2017 at 7:54 am

Correction. We haven’t waged a real war since August 1945. And, we managed to avoid WWIII.

With NK, the total destruction will not be “mutual.”

This will awaken the Chinese. “You want ‘The Bomb,’ Kim? Here are three.” BANG, BANG, BANG – BIG TIME

Nuke them until they glow.

I’m not scared at all. Of course, I’m not a grizzly bear in Alaska or a blue whale in the Pacific Ocean off Waikiki.

As if NK could put a nuke within a hundred miles of its target . . . .

19 Thiago Ribeiro July 11, 2017 at 10:29 am

Good to know no one will miss Alaska and Hawaii if they are gone. Maybe this is the biggest difference between Americans and Brazilians: for Brazilians, every life matters.

20 Dick the Butcher July 11, 2017 at 10:52 am

Thanks for the vote of confidence. However and sadly, I do no speak for everyone in America.

21 Thiago Ribeiro July 11, 2017 at 11:04 am

Who speaks for America, then?

22 msgkings July 11, 2017 at 11:29 am

Of course you do, Thiago!

23 Thiago Ribeiro July 11, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Wlle, someone has to do it and, unless twitting like mad counts, no one is doing it now.

24 Pshrnk July 11, 2017 at 11:50 am

I prefer not to be downwind from a half dozen North Korean nukes that missed their target.

25 Todd K July 11, 2017 at 12:02 pm

The downwind fallout scare is for Hollywood. See K-19′: The Widow Maker’s laughable ending note that fallout from the submarine could have reached NYC and triggered WWIII). Almost nobody who survived the blasts after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings died from radiation and those who did weren’t downwind from those cities but within the cities.

26 john July 11, 2017 at 8:57 am

You’re agree that we may well have a flare up in the KoreanWar (it has never stopped officially). However the US military has been getting plenty of practic so that justification is just one of the booeymen from the post above.

27 Ray Lopez July 11, 2017 at 12:38 pm

As I said in another thread, “duck and cover” exercises in Seoul and ‘testing’ the North Koreans by actually sinking one of their subs, with conventional weapons, next time they attack a South Korean military surface ship (as they did a decade ago) would test the resolve of North Korea to fight a conventional war. If they overreact, you now have cause to nuke them. But doing nothing except hoping the unstable Kim is not mentally ill is not a good option.

28 rayward July 11, 2017 at 6:20 am

Here is the best summary of our options with respect to NK that I’ve read (by Mark Bowden): Trump has exhibited a preference for doing the opposite of what Obama has done, of undoing what Obama has done, which means, with his short attention span and obsession with winning, Trump is unlikely to even consider the Acceptance Option. Bowden:

“Although in late April Trump called Kim “a madman with nuclear weapons,” perhaps the most reassuring thing about pursuing the acceptance option is that Kim appears to be neither suicidal nor crazy. In the five and a half years since assuming power at age 27, he has acted with brutal efficiency to consolidate that power; the assassination of his half brother is only the most recent example. As tyrants go, he’s shown appalling natural ability. For a man who occupies a position both powerful and perilous, his moves have been nothing if not deliberate and even cruelly rational. And as the latest head of a family that has ruled for three generations, one whose primary purpose has been to survive, as a young man with a lifetime of wealth and power before him, how likely is he to wake up one morning and set fire to his world?”

29 rayward July 11, 2017 at 6:30 am
30 dan1111 July 11, 2017 at 7:11 am

Good article, thanks for sharing. I tend to agree with the conclusion.

31 john July 11, 2017 at 9:55 am

The error of the conclusion is that smart means they won’t do bad thing with their status as a nuclear power and it’s very clear that they would not stop until that have superiority to the US (and other powers) and it seems implied that MAD would work with them as it did with the USSR. It will not. A DPRK as a real nuclear power would be the worst possible outcome for the world.

While I’m not a fan of violence this the conclusion is a Chamerlinean one. The longer the world waits to do something the worst the results will be.

32 Axa July 11, 2017 at 6:31 am

Castro and women, Gadaffi and his bodyguards…………indeed, just make enough noise to stay and the leader while avoiding total war. Gadaffi caused too much troubled and failed while the Saudis enjoy an hedonistic life.

33 dearieme July 11, 2017 at 6:56 am

It’s a natural reaction to the American propensity to invade non-nuclear nations on whim, or in search of a dollar, or on whatever pretext is fashionable at the time.

34 Jeff R July 11, 2017 at 7:55 am

Agreed. We need to be less discriminatory.

35 john July 11, 2017 at 9:01 am

This is just stupid. The umbrela of China is a better and safer protection for NK. Moreover, if the US had ever really wanted NK gone we’ve had plenty of opportunities in the past since McAuther fucked up and pushed the Chinese to react. I suspect the early 90s would have been a perfect time should the elimination of NK been a goal.

36 The Other Jim July 11, 2017 at 1:32 pm

>the American propensity to invade non-nuclear nations on whim

Hallucinate much?

37 dearieme July 11, 2017 at 1:50 pm

If you’ve got a rational explanation for said American propensity, do please advance it.

38 Thiago Ribeiro July 11, 2017 at 6:58 am

Nothing short of a preemptive nuclear strike can defeat Kim Jong-un before he has rhe means to launch a decapitation nuclear strike against America. But it would cost America money. Can the USA dare to upset its Chinese lenders nowadays? Remember the days when the USA could stand to a Communist empire (instead of just Cuba)?

39 john July 11, 2017 at 9:02 am

Can China afford to have usless paper notes? I think their budget is more delicate than the USA budget.

40 Thiago Ribeiro July 11, 2017 at 9:16 am

I am not sure. China controls its own country and its own movies. You don’t see money-grubbing Chinese selling their country to the enemy. Americans could stand to the Soviet Union, now theh can’t stand to Red China even in movies. We know the USA will not take any measure against China and North Korea their distrurbs American moneyed interests. Red China achieve what it akways desired: winning without fighting.Maybe one day Americans will look backward to the days their national independence and pride were sold to the highest bidder and decide that worshipping the Almighty Dollar was not actually a good idea. It will be late then though.

41 Steve-O July 11, 2017 at 12:11 pm

The Chinese have pieces of paper (bonds, currency, deeds).

42 Thiago Ribeiro July 11, 2017 at 12:31 pm

But they do not worship it the way Americans do.

43 chuck martel July 11, 2017 at 7:11 am

We’re supposedly in the “information age” but all the info available regarding the North Korean leadership is pretty superficial and unreliable. There must be a Kim Jong-Un be we know much more about Kim Kardashian than we do about the NorK boss, at least at the level of the general population. Any real knowledge is no doubt classified so speculation on the situation by the plebs is a waste of time.

44 Slocum July 11, 2017 at 7:28 am

My preferred strategy would be to hand the problem to China. Make it clear that we consider North Korea their client state and that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is part of China’s. Any attack by North Korea would be considered an attack by China itself. The same goes for proliferation by the North Koreans. Worry no more about North Korean ICBMs than Chinese ICBMs since they’re one and the same. Don’t allow China to keep playing the good cop/bad cop game.

45 Art Deco July 11, 2017 at 7:33 am

Not the worst idea.

46 Alain July 11, 2017 at 11:25 am

Agreed, but how to make the threat credible?

47 Bill July 11, 2017 at 7:57 am

So much of the military is 1950’s technology, yet, because it creates jobs or supports constituencies, we perpetuate it. Notwithstanding advances in radar and design, aircraft carriers are sitting ducks, even for third world countries. Airfields can be hit with cruise missiles.

As for North Korea, I would carpet bomb them with cheap and non-discoverable internet access devices which would let them see what they could order on Amazon. Surely in the age of miniaturization one could devise something the size of a fitbit zip and drop it from balloons so that their citizens could see the world. Or, maybe use flash drives, like they use in Cuba, to let them share music, movies and magazines.

48 Ari T July 11, 2017 at 8:10 am

What was really scary was this:

“So, now the fun part. Let’s say one hits. What do you think happens to the other interceptors? They keep going. Into Russia.”
“This is a well known-problem — multiple interceptors streaking into the hear of Mother Russia would look a lot like an ICBM attack.”

49 Daniel Weber July 11, 2017 at 2:40 pm

That was linked yesterday, and received no comment.

That map in the 5th tweet needs more explaining. Why would interceptors launched from Alaska towards NK missiles not go over NK at all, yet also possess the range to get to Madagascar?

50 Slugger July 11, 2017 at 10:15 am

To me the main reason to worry about NorK nuclear weapons is what it implies for the rest of the world. If a nation with a GDP the size of Vermont’s can build nukes, then fifty other nations can as well. Americans are willing to exercise our power in many places, but we are not willing to accept many casualties on our soil. When lots of small countries have nukes, then our military becomes useless.

51 Ricardo July 11, 2017 at 11:08 am

That isn’t really news, though. What distinguishes North Korea is its total lack of interest in being considered part of the civilized world. Leverage from participants in the non-proliferation regime and limits on the trade in uranium keep nukes out of the hands of most countries, not lack of resources. If you have reasonably smart physicists and engineers, access to large quantities of uranium and a complete disdain for international opinion, building a Hiroshima-style nuke is possible.

52 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ July 11, 2017 at 11:28 am

So, say a nuke does land 90 miles away, what does one do? Tape shut doors and windows, keep drinking tap water, and stay inside until the supplies run out? Asking for a friend.

53 KWebb July 11, 2017 at 12:03 pm

You would be fine to leave in a couple of days.

54 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ July 11, 2017 at 12:05 pm

Good to know. And lol, I forgot about the beer.

55 Todd K July 11, 2017 at 12:08 pm

90 miles away? Way too far to need to do anything. Even 5 miles away is not a health threat with a Nagasaki size bomb.

56 Ray Lopez July 11, 2017 at 12:40 pm

+1 it’s true. Fear of cancer is overrated. Just deal with it.

57 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ July 11, 2017 at 12:50 pm

I think the trick is to sketch a plan and then not worry. Obviously people do get sucked into “prepper lifestyles” for all sorts of self reinforcing fears. That is not good.

58 Ray Lopez July 11, 2017 at 12:55 pm

Yes, agree. It’s true. Now that North Korea has the bomb, you just have to deal with it, just like a cancer risk. Sadly, I doubt the US has the will or possibly even the means to do anything now.

59 Ray Lopez July 11, 2017 at 12:42 pm

This from the dove Jeffrey Lewis, ” And, despite the poor track record of decapitation strikes, the idea really frightens the North Koreans”–what is the ‘poor record’? I’m not aware of any decapitation strike except conventional iron bombs used by Israel to disrupt Iran (and some say Syrian) nuclear bomb building. What’s the use of tactical nuclear weapons if you’re not going to use them as bunker busters? Neutron bombs against the artillery troops would also be good, with little fallout.

60 ʕ•ᴥ•ʔ July 11, 2017 at 12:52 pm

Didn’t Saddam and Moammar survive decapitation attempts?

61 Ray Lopez July 11, 2017 at 12:53 pm

An observation on the US military: they are weak, lame, a waste of American tax money, and they’ll do nothing on this crisis. Cold war expert J. Lewis has said George H.W. Bush and Clinton fumbled the (nuclear?!) football by not taking out North Korea before they had ICBMs, back in the 1990s. Why? Probably because their military brass doesn’t have the balls to carry out even a simple “Israeli” style iron-bomb decapitation strike.

Reminds me of the Greek “colonels” in the “junta” of the early 1970s. They acted so tough, like their expertise was military prowess, but could not stop the Turks in Cyprus (did not even try; they weren’t stupid, they knew they would lose), and lost credibility in the eyes of the public. The same thing happened with the generals in Argentina with the Falklands War. Likewise, for all the talk about how potent the US military is, even with the desert terrain of the Middle East, with fixed formations and no hard to fight in jungles, and a numerical superiority, the US military had a hard time with kinetic solutions. Capturing OBL? Apparently done by a Pakistani doctor using DNA swaps on reliable human intel, and last I heard he was imprisoned by the Paks for his efforts. Face it: the people in the US military, like some of my neighbors, are in that welfare program to serve 20 years, get a pension, and then work in their 40s on a second career. It’s a waste of taxpayer money; it’s make-work, welfare for the Midwest. I don’t expect North Korea to be stopped and frankly as I said before the ‘silver lining’ in the mushroom cloud over LA/NYC (which IMO will not kill that many people, probably a couple of hundred thousand, as nuclear fission bombs misfire, and they are not always accurate) will be world condemnation of nuclear weapons and thus a UN effort to drastically reduce their numbers.

62 Shaun Marsh July 12, 2017 at 8:25 pm

Frankly speaking, it’s not all that to be scared about and I am not much concern. The only thing in my head is about my work and I only get concern about that. I do feel these things have impact on all the happening in the globe, so got to be given attention; I do just that being a Forex trader. I never have to make extra effort due to this blog and my broker OctaFX providing daily and weekly market reports for free, it’s very special.

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