Here’s How The U.S. Should Respond If North Korea Fires Missiles Near Guam

If North Korea follows through on its threat to test a missile into waters near Guam, our response could be a matter of life or death for almost 200 million people

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This week has been terrific for those who always wanted to experience what it was like to constantly worry about nuclear war but never really got the chance. Between Trump tweeting about a report containing some classified intel about North Korea’s possible success in miniaturizing nukes to mount them on top of missiles, then threatening them with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” while Kim Jong Un threatened to casually test a missile in the waters awfully close to Guam, we’ve been teetering way too close to a massive international crisis.

Hopefully this won’t all end in tears, but in the meantime, we have a very immediate problem of what to do should North Korea refuse to back down and proceed with its test, targeting a patch of ocean just 25 to 40 miles off the coast of an island that just so happens to be a) a U.S. territory, b) an extremely important military node, and c) one of Pyongyang’s most likely primary targets for a nuclear strike should war break out.

As with almost everything when it comes to North Korea, we have options and none of them are good, but now we have the added challenge of a less than level-headed president armed with one of the world’s largest and most powerful nuclear arsenals challenging the tyrant of a prison nation which has nothing to lose, to a game of chicken. So putting that less than soothing thought away, for now, let’s go through some of our options and consider the pros and cons, as well as what should be our ultimate end-game.

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Heigh Ho, Heigh Ho, It’s Off To War We Go

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Probably the first, and most reflexive option to respond to a missile being shot just miles away from an American asset would be to use all those jets, bombers, and missiles for a strike against North Korea. It doesn’t have to be an all out strike, a limited response could be considered sufficient. But the big catch here is that there’s no such thing as a limited strike against North Korea. The region has been a tinder box for more than half a century and a single missile that hits Pyongyang would set it off.

Americans coming to destroy the nation isn’t just a staple in propaganda the Kim clan beams to its prisoner-citizens, it’s the core of its national narrative. And considering that North Korea says their nuclear program is to deter any attempts at invasion or regime change by American-backed forces, it seems that Kim Jong Un isn’t just using the United States as a bogeyman, he really does believe we’re out to get him based on our actions in Iraq and Libya. He also isn’t entirely wrong to think that either.

This means any strike, no matter how limited, will be interpreted as the first act of a war designed to decapitate the regime, and there’s very little reason to doubt that the nukes will start flying at Seoul, Guam, and Tokyo not long after that. North Korea survives by holding 100 million people hostage and since it’s being attacked, it has little reason not to start shooting some of its hostages in a bid to get its attackers to back off or be stuck with a nasty war in rough, mountainous terrain, and a multi-trillion dollar cleanup that will last decades. We’d essentially be abetting a murder-suicide.

War with North Korea isn’t so much a question of if we could topple the Kim dynasty and beat back his massive military. We know we can and they do as well. The question is how many civilians we’re willing to sacrifice to do this, and if we’re really fine with spending the next quarter century cleaning up the mess, which may include multiple modern day Hiroshimas, involve tens of millions of people who will lose their homes and loved ones, and if there’s really something we can possibly do to avoid all this.

When The Only Winning Move Is Not To Play

Promotional image for Homefront 3

Promotional image for Homefront 3

All right, so if war is a terrible option what can we do instead? To answer a question with a question, why do anything? Yes, the announcement had all the bluster of a military challenge but it was loaded with caveats. They will create a plan, they will mobilize to execute it if the Dear Leader gives the order, which he might decide not to give. Or he may move the splashdown target to a less provocative location because, to be frank, Kim Jong Un is a little lost right now when it comes to his saber rattling and wants room to maneuver and subtly de-escalate the situation.

Inflammatory rhetoric about seas of flame and fire and fury like the world has never seen before to defend their homeland from foreign aggressors is kind of his family’s thing. They might not own the copyright on that since this sort of tough talk has been around for as long as civilization as we know it existed, but they’ve certainly taken it to a very high level. They’re used to half a century of very subdued, noncommittal responses, or just silence with a shrug. Having an American president throw their own belligerence back at them definitely sent some heads in Pyongyang spinning.

Should they stick to their plan, fire their missile towards Guam and get no response, they would surely claim their superiority in the standoff, but they claim victory no matter what happens and are mostly playing to their home audience rather than foreigners. Doing and saying nothing after Trump very casually threatening an apocalyptic nuclear bombardment wouldn’t reflect well on America, but at least it would show restraint from one of the nuclear powers capable of ending the world with its arsenal.

But let’s just be honest, America’s stock has already fallen quite low with Trump’s incoherent foreign policy, so we could also argue that a lack of action might give our allies relief that cooler heads have prevailed and there are still people in the White House and the Department of Defense who are really not interested in creating Cuban Missile Crisis 2: Pacific Boogalloo as the second coming of Nixon commands over 4,000 nukes.

Playing Missile Command In Real Life

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test (Department of Defense)

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test (Department of Defense)

But there’s a third option should North Korea decide to proceed with its test to shoot dangerously close to Guam. Since it’s an American territory with an extremely significant military presence, it’s heavily guarded by very potent and extensively tested THAAD batteries. While they can’t take out an ICBM— basic physics dictates that few technologies can — this missile would be a far shorter range IRBM, or Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile, which puts it well within THAAD’s capabilities to intercept and destroy.

With an announced, planned test, there’s an extremely high chance that we could shoot down the missile in flight and follow it up with nothing more than a very matter-of-fact statement confirming the intercept. It would leave North Korea flustered and complaining about Americans interfering with a planned test, but it would demonstrate that one of their primary targets can repel a potential attack with the same technology distributed to allies whose cities and military bases would also be in the crosshairs.

While this may be seen as a hostile act, in the broader context of what happened, it’s easy to prove this was self-defense to belligerent and really aggressive behavior. It could also shake Kim Jong Un’s confidence in exactly how effective his nuclear deterrent is, which may soften his stance and tone down his statements, or drive him to double down and create more nukes to hopefully overwhelm American, South Korean, and Japanese defenses.

With new punishing sanctions, it may be difficult to ramp up production on his missiles, which have yet to demonstrate the capability to actually hit a target while American nukes have a long track record of terrifying precision and reliability. It took Russia more than a decade with all the nearly unlimited resources of a global superpower and state of the art technology until they built up enough capacity to truly threaten the United States. North Korea is going to take a lot longer to get to the same level.

Either way, Americans would look stronger, and North Korea will once again seem like it’s picking a fight with a sleeping dragon, especially if the follow up is not blustery saber rattling and ultimatums, but almost nonchalant. But that said, there is a small chance we’ll miss and in that case, the PR would be absolutely devastating and embolden Pyongyang further, so an intercept is a low risk, but extremely high consequence proposition which needs to be well thought out before it’s put into action.

How To Learn To Stop Worrying And Live With The Bomb

A man watches a TV news program reporting about North Korea’s missile launch at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea. — Feb. 12, 2017. (AP/Lee Jin-man)

A man watches a TV news program reporting about North Korea’s missile launch at the Seoul Train Station in Seoul, South Korea. — Feb. 12, 2017. (AP/Lee Jin-man)

And speaking of thinking before putting plans into action, one of the biggest questions out there is what is our end-game in North Korea since nobody out there wants a nuclear war, at least nobody sane, and the justification for a policy of containment and strategic isolation is now dead. Remember, giving up on a peace treaty and keeping the pressure on Pyongyang was part of a containment strategy designed to fight the spread of communism and give the USSR footholds in Asia.

But North Korea has been toxic not just to the world, but to its allies as well, and transformed from a would-be mini-USSR to a totalitarian state that’s been used as a buffer zone against American forces in the region by China. With no one willing to touch it, and no one willing to return to war, it was left in relative stasis for decades, and now, it’s cruelty and patience paid off as it acquired nuclear weapons to be an even bigger menace and dictate its terms to the region where it sits like a bone in a throat.

The simplistic response to this would be to say that talking to Pyongyang now would be just rewarding it for its bad behavior. But since we’re talking about a sovereign country, not a kid we can ground from his video games and send to his room without dinner, that would only make matters worse in the long run. Foreign policy wonks with expertise in the matter seem to be coalescing around a common strategy of acceptance. Let them have the nukes and try and end the Korean War with a peace treaty because it’s still on and provides ample ammunition for propaganda.

Normalizing relations would provide a direct line from Pyongyang to DC so we wouldn’t have to go through intermediaries, and create a foothold to communicate directly with North Koreans who are becoming very aware of just how badly off they are in their current situation. American companies can offer to remedy that and provide less political entertainment like sci-fi movies and music, exposing the country to the outside world. It’s a step no Kim would’ve taken unless there was a guarantee he would stay in power or have an exit without losing life, limb, or money, but the young Kim might.

Maybe it’s naive to expect North Korea to aid in its own transformation and it will do anything to can to derail any talks. But it’s in a corner with fewer and fewer options itself and is resorting to kamikaze tactics when creating and planning to deploy its nuclear arsenal. Every year, it has fewer choices and its people suffer more and more. How long until they’re out of people to do the required work and their revenues are more dependent on crime than exports of coal and loaning slave labor to China and Russia?

American soft power worked better than any ultimatum behind the Iron Curtain, as yours truly can attest from personal experience. Perhaps it could work wonders once again, even if we won’t get a fleeting moment of proper justice for those murdered by the Kims. As we saw in Iraq, moments like this feel good for a little while, but without a coherent strategy of exactly what to do next and buy-in from all those involved in the process, they’re quickly replaced with destabilizing wars that continue with no end in sight.

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Global Outlook // North Korea / Politics / World