Joshua PollackSkin in the Game: Why Worry about North Korean ICBMs?

Around these parts, North Korea’s ICBM program is the national-security obsession du jour. That’s validating for someone like me, sure. But why? And why now?

As I see it, there are good reasons and bad reasons to be concerned, and focusing on one set or another will lead to very different conclusions.

Let’s start with the good reasons.

The first and most straightforward: there are already a couple of nuclear-armed countries that (I presume) target the United States. Whatever else one might say about that, the fewer, the better. New mutual nuclear deterrence relationships, furthermore, seem to be the least stable. Relations and communications between the two sides are also quite poor in this instance.

Second, North Korea is the only state to develop the means to build nuclear weapons while inside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, exit the treaty, and then build and test bombs. The more successful this endeavor, the worse it is for the nonproliferation regime, other things being equal.

Third, the entire point of ICBMs, for the North Koreans, appears to be driving a wedge between the United States and South Korea. If America has more “skin in the game” during a crisis, the thinking goes, it will be less inclined to use its superior military power to face down the threat to the South.

Fourth, and particularly important to anyone contemplating the merits of negotiating a renewed freeze on North Korea’s missile testing, is that they haven’t flight-tested an ICBM yet. Without flight tests, they can’t identify and resolve the final technical issues that may stand between them and a credible threat to the United States itself. The horse is out of the barn when it comes to the regional threat, but the intercontinental threat still hasn’t fully emerged. That alone makes it something worth talking about.

On to the bad reasons.

First, lately we hear that North Korea is now “racing” or hell-bent on getting an ICBM, which means that the United States, or China, or somebody, must move with alacrity to prevent it, somehow. But that’s not so. History did not start on January 1, 2017, when Kim Jong Un declared that his country had, in the previous year, entered the final phase of preparations for flight-testing ICBMs. You might not recall the controversies around missile threats (and missile defense) in the late 1990s, including NIE 95-19, the Gates Panel, and the Rumsfeld Commission. It suffices to say that after all this back and forth, the intelligence community took the view in 2000 that “during the next 15 years the United States most likely will face ICBM threats from Russia, China, and North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq,” as defined by the first successful flight test in each case.

North Korea refrained from missile tests from 1998 until 2006, which must have slowed progress. But when Pyongyang unveiled its ICBM program in early 2012, it appeared that it might still be on track to meet the window of the old estimate. Indeed, in the fall of 2010, the United States was already so alarmed by indications of progress that—well, over to you, Mark Landler of the NYT:

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s patience with China had been fraying for months, and by November 2010 he was fed up. Meeting with President Hu Jintao in Seoul, South Korea, Mr. Obama warned that if China did not do more to curb North Korea’s bellicose behavior, he would have to take steps to shield the United States from the threat of a nuclear missile attack from the North.

(Psst. Sound familiar?)

Anyway, North Korea could start testing ICBMs at any time. But it’s already 2017, and they’ve defied expectations up to now by not doing so. Probably that’s a matter of restraint rather than incapacity. It also seems to reflect Kim Jong Un’s priorities: if the primary role of nuclear weapons is to prevent an invasion, then the short- and medium-range missiles that can hit U.S. bases in the region are of the essence, while the long-term effort to crack the alliance is secondary.

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that North Korea tests a heck of a lot of theater missiles, especially since Kim Jong Un came to power; on that score, have a good look at this outstanding NTI report by CNS’s Shea Cotton and colleagues. While it does space launches every few years, North Korea has yet to flight-test a mobile, survivable ICBM.

So sure. Maybe they’re finally getting ready for the big show. But they haven’t exactly been rushing to get there, compared to the effort they’ve put into other delivery systems.

Second, and related to the first, is the insinuation that North Korea is so crazy, so dangerous, so unpredictable, that it wouldn’t be like having a mutual deterrence situation with Russia or China. Therefore, we must do something about it.

This must sound awfully familiar to anyone who has studied the history of the Chinese nuclear program. There was a fairly serious debate in Washington about whether to try to bomb it out of existence before China’s first nuclear test. After all, lots of people then thought that Mao was crazy. Before the first nuclear test certainly would have been the relevant time to try such a thing. Needless to say, we didn’t do so, and we have survived.

What’s more, there’s a much better case to be made that Mao was “crazy” than any of the Kims were. The Great Leap Forward. The Cultural Revolution. Now that’s insanity. North Korea’s rhetoric may be colorful, but it’s nothing remotely like Mao’s infamous appeal to Khrushchev to start a nuclear war with the United States—on Chinese soil.

All rhetoric aside, the North Koreans show a pretty good understanding of what nuclear weapons are about. At the time of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000, the late Kim Jong Il told visiting members of the South Korean press that it was ridiculous to think North Korea could beat America by shooting missiles at it. Now that the nukes are out in the open, his son Kim Jong Un talks about brinkmanship. That may be appalling, but it makes him no crazier than John Foster Dulles.

So, once we are done insisting that China will fix this problem for us, and it turns out there’s no Plan B, perhaps we’ll consider what it takes to bargain with the North Koreans, or we’ll learn to live in the same dangerous situation that our allies already do.

And yet. Just last week, we were treated to the unedifying sight of Sen. Lindsey Graham on the Today Show. Prompted by the hosts, he took up the subject of preemption. As transcribed by the South Korean press, he said,

“It would be terrible but the war would be over here (there), wouldn’t be here,” Graham said with a gesture with his fingers. “It would be bad for the Korean Peninsula. It would be bad for China.

It would be bad for Japan, be bad for South Korea. It would be the end of North Korea. But what it would not do is hit America and the only way it could ever come to America is with a missile.”

Asked if he would support a preemptive strike on the North, Graham said, “If that’s what it would take.”

Graham also said the US is “on a collision course” with the North.

The senator said North Korea was a topic when he had lunch with President Donald Trump.

“I said, ‘Do you want on your resume that during your presidency the North Koreans developed a missile that could hit the American homeland with a nuclear weapon on top of it?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely not,'” Graham said.

Granted, this is an interesting backhanded concession that we’ve wasted billions and billions of dollars on a poorly conceived, mismanaged strategic ballistic missile defense system that no one is willing to rely on when it comes down to it. But put that aside for now.

Here’s the thing that Sen. Graham, remarkably, seems not to get: The entire point of the American alliances with South Korea and Japan is mutual defense and security. It would make a mockery of that idea if United States were to do something “bad” or “terrible” to its allies and trade partners, like start a nuclear war in their neighborhood. If North Korea with an ICBM would be so intolerably dangerous for the United States that we would be prepared to discard the most vital interests of our allies in order to save our own skins, then it would be far better for them, and for us, just to leave the region. North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles wouldn’t endanger us then, and no one—friend, foe, or frenemy—would have to suffer from our choice of a preventive war. After all, we don’t go out of our way to deter the North Koreans just for the thrill of it.

If, on the other hand, America is in the business of sharing the burdens of defense with like-minded countries and keeping the world as free, secure, and prosperous as we can manage, then we have some difficult choices to make. Bargaining may not work. Deterrence may fail. But those are risks I’d take long before the meager comfort of getting our shot in first. Anyone who thinks carefully about the reasons that North Korean ICBMs are a problem, I hope, will reach the same conclusion.


  1. E. Parris (History)

    Everyone is entitled to an opinion or a recommendation, but readers expect much better than the analysis presented. A pressing question relates to the reunification of the Koreas.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      If you are dissatisfied, send a self-addressed stamped envelope and we’ll provide you with a full refund.

  2. Keve (History)

    Very nice article as usual…

    But I am not so sure that NoKorea did not test their ICBM yet. Latest parade showed 2-stage ICBM modified KN-08 which could be the missile that NoKor tested few months ago that reached altitude of ~1,600 km which is ICBM performance with prove out of re-entry vehicle landing on target.

    US or South Korea cannot not determine which type of missile(s) were tested based by what was shown on the radar screen only. Most often, analysts guess the missile by the range and altitude; trying to determine and conclude the capability of NoKor based on satellite or radar is very inadequate and dangerously risk.

    What if NoKorea carried their ICBM on their cargo ship away in a ocean where US satellite/radar are NOT available. What evidence are there with certainty that NoKor have not tested ICBM out in the ocean on a cargo ship? For example, satellite only took picture of NoKor submarines at its dock, never out at sea, thus never knew status of SLBM until NoKor provided pictures. .

    With such limited capability to measure what NoKorea did, and vast options available for NoKor to test their ICBM, I would not trust the pictures of satellite nor radar screen “dot” alone to confirm what was tested, yet. That is way too dangerous…..

    NoKor showed KN08 ICBM for the 1st time in 2012 parade, but there were pictures of KN-08 ICBM, years earlier with current leader Kim Jung Un’s father on the background. Matter fact, there were public articles that claims Chinese were asking Nokor not to parade the KN-08 during mid or later years of 2000’s, to maintain peaceful environment for 6-party talks which later failed, and NoKor eventually paraded the KN-08 in 2012. The point is…. US is always behind on NoKor capabilities, and making strategic decision based on OLD inaccurate assessment is not in the interest of US.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      My understanding is that the oceans are surveilled for missile launches and the like.

    • ajay (History)

      “What if NoKorea carried their ICBM on their cargo ship away in a ocean where US satellite/radar are NOT available.”

      I am fairly sure that no such ocean exists – the Defense Support Program ( satellites and their successors in SBIRS ( are designed to cover the entire world and look for the distinctive (and highly detectable) heat bloom of a rocket launch. Ships at sea and objects on land are comparatively easy to hide, but a rocket launch is just about the most detectable human activity there is.

    • J_kies (History)

      Mr Keve or KJU’s spokesmodel whichever you prefer.

      Despite all public panic, the KN-08 is not and will never be a credible liquid propellant mobile ICBM range system. The specific reasons why not have everything to do with the basics of rocket design; if the airframe is light enough to fly to ICBM ranges, then it cannot survive fueled transport. The best efforts of the US and the Soviet Union never managed a road mobile liquid propellant ICBM range vehicle and its not reasonable to expect that the DPRK with its limited resources to do something that neither cold war party with vast resources of time, personnel and materiel managed despite the inherent attractiveness of such a concept.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      If that’s right, then they can fuel it in a hide site, roll it out and shoot it. Solid is clearly better, but that’s good enough.

    • Pavel (History)

      It’s all relative, in fact. Soviet/Russian SLBMs are fueled at the production plant and then transported to a submarine base (presumably by rail). This, of course, not a road-mobile missile, but it shows that one can move a fueled missile around.

    • J_kies (History)

      Pavel; I have high respect for the Soviet engineering. I would remind you that all the material that has been released shows the R-27/R-29 families were transported in a handling canister with explicit means to spread the loads. The loading into the submarine tube (vertical) was the only time the missile was not protected in the transport canister. This is a far cry from the bare missile on a DPRK knock-off of a MAZ transporter.

      Josh; I would remark as to the recent explosion scar and its likely cause as short range transport on a smooth runway. Structurally; a Hwasong-13 is a far worse problem than the 1 for 8 attempts Hwasong-10.

  3. Dan Gilchrist (History)

    As I said over t’other thread, if the US doesn’t consider the threat NK has over the South and Japan sufficient, then things are a lot worse than I’m willing to think seriously about right now. If they’re willing to burn those allies, I think plenty of other allies will be looking for new partners in a big hurry. I think Graham’s quote up above is exactly how much of the world would see it, and that’s nothing but a betrayal of (correct me if I’m wrong) unprecedented scale. Guarantee death and destruction on that sort of level just to fend off a threat that almost certainly would never happen? No, that will not fly. However capable the leadership might be to get Americans on-side (and that, I seriously doubt), it’d be crushing for American influence globally.

    Hey, that China has been a good citizen to anyone who isn’t a neighbour or a resident, hasn’t it?

    I can’t see it happening. It’d be every kind of stupid.

  4. Keve (History)

    J_kies… you are assuming that ICBMs are liquid fuel; you do not know that. Musudan IRBM missile is on mobile carrier was clearly liquid fuel; this is on YouTube footage. So liquid is feasible, and some modern Russian ICBMs are liquid fuel in silos. Also everyone has their own opinion on the level of North Korean missile, please keep your name calling to yourself; this is not about taking sides, but a discussion of everyone’s view. Never under estimate your enemy…better safe than sorry. Also I would not take result of missile test based on media report or what is made public by politicians as conclusion. Radar detections are never accurate enough to determine what missile was tested, let alone know what the intent of the test was. If missile disappears from radar screen, no one can confidently state what the intent of the missile test was for. No country ever tried to complete all functional test with just one flight test. It is alway better to assume that your enemy is as good as your were/are, and will eventually catch up with you sooner than you think. If you don’t know with absolute certianty than you cannot assume that they failed with little evidence available to prove otherwise. We heard more than once from politicians/military, that NoKorea has made progress faster than expected… this is not a good excuse protecting US citizens.

    • J_kies (History)

      Mr Keve; I was stating the engineering view that paraded ‘Hwasong-13’ vehicles (American terms KN-08 and KN-14) are not credible ICBM range vehicles. While parade articles are mockups, the characteristics shown in the mockups were clearly intended to indicate liquid fuels. I certainly believe the DPRK has some engineers who received tutelage from the Soviet designers as the Soviet heritage of the ‘Juche’ missiles is clear. I do not believe that the DPRK is immune to the principles of missile design and basic engineering practice which are violated by the apparent design paraded in Pyongyang.

      I am probably giving excess credit to the DPRK as I am ignoring most of the resource limitations associated with a ~ 43Billion$ GDP supporting ~24 million people. I place no faith in politicians or military officer claims about the DPRK threat, I follow the engineering practice and to date the DPRK has shown no relevant capabilities for:

      1) Missile guidance beyond R-17 / Scud-1b levels; until the DPRK puts a target on their range and announces they are shooting at that target, we will expect only scaled Scud accuracy inflated to longer ground ranges. (~1km CEP at 300km to > 10km CEP at 3000km)

      2) Credible reentry for long range missiles; the physics of the problem scale as V^3, while the immersion of a parcel resembling a nose cone into the Scud plume is ‘interesting’, it does not force the conclusion that the DPRK has mastered reentry heat-shield technology that they can manufacture. Without surviving long range flight tests, the engineers advising KJU are not honest if they claim the system will work.

      3) Solid rocket motor technology; welcome to an endless sink for expenditures on something the DPRK cannot tune during short ground tests. SRMs are a multivariate problem in chemistry, rheology of particulates and various aspects in casing and ‘star’ layout. I look forward to a lot of spectacular failures while the DPRK attempts to get into the game. No shortcuts are available to get to ICBM capable designs.

  5. Anon2 (History)

    “The Great Leap Forward. The Cultural Revolution. Now that’s insanity.”

    It’s not any more insane than escapee reports of the North Korean version of concentration (“re-education”) camps; or of political executions with quad-M2 equivalents. The people who escape the camps describe a Lord of the Flies scramble for food. It appears to this observer that the combination of Junche economy and trade sanctions (for refusing to terminate their WMD program) are creating the same internal economic damage as the Cultural Revolution or the great Chinese famine.

    I’m hoping for a negotiated end to the Korean War. Trump sent the Olive Branch today saying he would be “honored” to meet Kim Jong Un. Maybe we will all get lucky. We really have no idea what Kim is like, only the net combination of his government + propagandist. Good luck to us.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      There was a famine in North Korea from 1994-1998. Nothing remotely close to Mao-era Chinese experiences since then.

  6. robgoldston (History)

    My take is that we need a suspension (of nuclear & missile tests) for suspension (of joint military exercises) in an interim deal like the 2013 JPOA with Iran. Then we can breathe, talk, and negotiate.

  7. robgoldston (History)

    BTW, amazing article about Gromyko’s book in the links!