Jeffrey LewisWriting on the Wall

You know who tries to deter cyber-attacks with nuclear weapons?  North Korea, that’s who.

North Korea released a statement that Kim Jong Il had “ratified the plan of the Strategic Rocket Force for firepower strike” against “the U.S. mainland, their stronghold, their military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam…”

Eagle-eyed observers noted the white chart that showed various targets.  If you squint a bit, you can make them out.  Three are pretty obvious:

(1) Washington, DC.  Ok, we knew that.

(2) Hawaii.  The statement said so and, well, Hawaii is home to PACOM.

(3) I make the target in Southern California to be San Diego, which happens to be the principal homeport of the Pacific Fleet and a pretty big military town.

Now, what is the fourth target?

I think that is San Antonio, Texas.  I guess the Spurs should have been nicer to Dennis Rodman.

San Antonio is also known known as Cyber City, USA — home to Lackland Air Force Base and Air Force Cyber Command.

The North Koreans have recently been complaining about cyberattacks against their networks.  (Rodong Sinmun and KCNA both seem to have been offline for recent periods.)  On March 15, KCNA carried a statement stating that “intensive and persistent virus attacks are being made every day on internet servers operated by the DPRK,” asserting the attacks are “timed to coincide with the madcap Key Resolve joint military exercises being staged by the U.S. and other hostile forces,” and warning that North Korea “will never remain a passive onlooker to the enemies’ cyber attacks…”

A few observations.

First, I think it is very interesting that San Antonio makes the top four, but not Omaha.  I suppose this should tell us that Kim Jong Un is very, very unhappy about not being able to read Rodong Sinmun on his smart phone.

Second, some of my colleagues have argued that the display of the wall chart is for domestic consumption.  I would submit the North Koreans are speaking to both domestic and US audiences, given that the San Antonio reference will be lost on 99.9 percent of North Koreans.

Third, the threats appear aspirational in that the ranges may exceed North Korea’s actual missile capabilities. Generally, I am of the view that North Korea does not yet have the ability to reliably deliver a nuclear weapon to the United States although there are important cautions.  North Korea might be sitting on a much larger missile, might be able to jerry-rig Unha rockets, or might be deploying KN-08 missiles without flight-testing them. None of these options strikes me as terribly reliable and each has serious operational limitations. And San Antonio is very, very far from North Korea — more than 11,000 kilometers.

But, in a pinch, North Korea might decide that such missiles, though a bit backward in performance, would still be better than fighting a war with just millet and rifles.  I think someone maybe said something like that once.


  1. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    My squinting probably leaves something to be desired, but that map looks like a Mercator projection, and straight lines on a Mercator projection are not great circles, the paths that missiles would take.

    It’s pretty obviously not a gnomonic projection, the kind of map on which great circles plot as straight lines.

    Or maybe that works differently in North Korea.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      It seems like a Mercator projection — or something close like a Robinson. I presume the Young General doesn’t bother with the actual details.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I should say that it is possible the hat gets in the way and that the line heads toward Barksdale and AFGSC. But were that the case, I would think STRATCOM would get first priority.

  2. Bill Thrasher (History)

    I agree with the writer who said that the map was for domestic consumption. I find it difficult to accept that China, Russia or any other nuclear-capable power would countenance such a showdown knowing that it would directly effect them. I believe the NK boss is just trying to ramp up his own status with his people knowing that if he attacks SK, our soldiers will die and that guarantees a rapid and devastating response from US forces and not necessarily B2 bombers. Our Submarines are available as well and they are known to be capable of mugging an enemy.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      So, what happened in 2010?

    • John Schilling (History)

      US soldiers didn’t die. Seoul perhaps values Korean soldiers as highly as Washington values American ones, but has sound reason to place a higher cost on any discretionary confrontation with North Korea.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      We didn’t do anything in 1969 or 1976 or 1994 when North Korea killed US service persons.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      1969 and 1976 were in the middle and just immediately post-Vietnam; interest in wider conflicts was at a nearly all-time low then (if you think the current unease is bad, reflect back on the early 70s…).

      1994 was with the US helicopter somewhere it should not have been, so while we objected to the shoot down response at least it was our mistake not their overt aggression.

      I would leave off the list the (few) incidents where SK or US forces were where they were not supposed to be. The minefield incident, the helicopter. I’d also leave some where it’s not clear there was any higher-up intent to cause a provocation off the list. Which still leaves a darn long list.

    • Magpie (History)

      I like to look at everything as if it’s rational. Even if it’s not, I have more fun pretending it is.

      This whole show for South Korean, and possibly Chinese, domestic consumption, IMO.

      Looks to me very much like they’re poking South Korea to try to get them to start an incident. Then they can respond, permit escalation to go so far, and then hold off to claim the moral high-ground. All of this stuff seems aimed more at South Korea’s worried / nationalistic / proud population than anyone else (and by extension, both SK’s leadership and military). He’s scaring them, and the South is responding in kind. The north has got to be happy with the results so far.

      But what are they doing it for? We’re well past the usual cylce of breach -> sanction -> provokation -> outrage -> backdown -> Plumpy’nut.

      It’s hard to think of reasons that justify the enormous risk they’re running right now, but I can think of two possibilities that make sense for some-value-of-risk:

      1. The Latest Kim is under some internal threat and wants to establish that he has tremendous testicles and is not to be messed with. Poking the Bear (the US) is a last resort, perhaps, but is still an effective cojones-management tool: see also Saddam between the Gulf Wars, when the poor evil bugger got stuck in “come at me, bro” mode vs the US, because if he had backed down and shown his utter lack of WMDs and moustachioed bad-arsery, his troops would have blown his head off for being such a pussy. Still, it took him a lot further then he had any right to expect after The Great Kuwait Debacle.

      But in any case, I don’t think it could be that bad in NK without us hearing about it. So:

      2. More hand-wavey (lacking any precedent), but more likely IMO: someone in TL Kim’s bunker thinks they can prop up their waning Chinese support by winning over the rapidly-growing upper-middle class in that country with a bit of gung-ho bravery.

      The decline in Chinese support for North Korea is, if the trend continues, a genuine existential threat to Kim-and-Friends in the long term. If they can prod someone from the South into starting a wee spot of shootin’, they are potentially in the position of being able to “win” a very quick exchange. That is, they can retaliate, and simultaneously re-open channels, call for (or “demand”, depending what your translators want to go with) calm, cry crocodile tears, and point at the nasty forners wot dun shot at ‘em.

      It’ll just be a matter of having the last word, and with Seoul at stake they’ve got to know we’ll back down pretty far into the piece, especially if they’re bleating “ceasefire” (couched in noble terms, of course) to the world. If they can call a halt at the end of the first round, or even the second, they’ll be able to tell everyone they “won” against the mighty US. ‘Course, if it gets into round 3+ it could get out of hand and everyone loses, but depending on their estimate of risk they might be willing to chance it – as a last resort they can take one on the chin and at least claim the role of “scrappy loser”. They do have nukes up their sleeves – that’s got to provide a bit of incentive for everyone to back off at some point, yes?

      Raising NK brand-awareness in China is important – possibly *all* important – and with the slowly-but-surely rising nationalism in China and their subsequent interest in that part of the world that isn’t China, North Korea could be onto a winner: get some respect and good-will among the Chinese, so that anyone in that country considering the potential conflicts to come will want their government to have a decently strong, or at the very least *extant*, friend on the peninsula.

    • Magpie (History)

      Erm, TLDR version: the difference this time is that they’re going all-out to get the South to shoot first.

  3. Ara Barsamian (History)


    What happened to your sense of humor? DPRK and the little fat kid attacking the US? We should not lose sleep over Little Kim’s threats backed by “smoke and mirrors” or be goaded into wasting billions…

    On the other hand, we (US) have become a “paper tiger”, where we can claim “victories” in Granada, Panama, Haiti, and I’m sure there other gems like that. And we are great at “sending messages” to show resolve…If our elites had any balls, we would’ve used a Tomahawk with an W80 to take Osama out in Tora Bora when we had him cornered…instead we blow half a trillion on Afghanistan and have our boys killed for nothing…but these jerks don’t send THEIR kids to die…This encourages nobodys like Kim to safely play with us since all the world knows by now we have lost our “teeth”…

    Frankly, DPRK is an irritant, but that’s all…

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Oh, I feel good about general deterrence for a big war, except I worry the DPRK will push the ROK too far one day and a lot of people will get killed before we dispose of Kim Jong Un and his ilk.

      I suppose I think that we’ve overdone it a bit with the North Korea jokes.

    • John Schilling (History)

      “before we dispose of Kim Jong Un and his ilk”

      It’s not clear to me how that happens, no matter how far Kim & company push it. Certainly we have the power to make it happen, but it isn’t clear to me that we have the power to make it happen without killing a million or so innocent people, or that we have the will.

      We can trash some of the DPRK’s conventional military assets, MiGs and tank brigades and the like, fairly cleanly. Tell everyone we taught Kim a lesson, and believe it ourselves if we like. Beyond that, I don’t see any good options.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      That was my point — that the DPRK pushes the ROK too far and the counter-provocation results in a general war we win, but at an awful cost.

    • John Schilling (History)

      We won a general war in 1991; Saddam Hussein remained in power for another twelve years. And now most everyone seems to think that the second war, the one that brought down his regime, was a mistake on our part.

      A march on Pyongyang will be in almost every way harder than the march on Baghdad. North Korea has been preparing for that war for sixty years now. They have more men and more guns than the Iraqis did in either 1991 or 2003, and are more deeply entrenched in far more rugged terrain. There are no significant minority populations in North Korea, and the Kim dynasty has held power longer and more thoroughly than did Hussein. In Iraq, we had to worry about offending the Turks or the Iranians; in Korea we would have to worry about offending the Russians or Chinese. That didn’t work well for us the last time around.

      Also, there is the small matter that in Iraq we had to worry about whether Hussein had chemical weapons, and it turns out he didn’t. The North Koreans, I am pretty sure, do have chemical weapons. Plus the nuclear missiles.

      On the plus side, if South Korea signs on for the march to Pyongyang, they would bring more to the table than any of our allies did in the Gulf, in 1991 or 2003. But that’s a lot to ask of the ROK, both during the fighting and during the occupation/reconstruction.

      And I am not sure that it would be enough. Certainly we can win a general war with North Korea, in the way that we did with Iraq in 1991. That doesn’t bring down the regime. I am skeptical that we are now capable of winning a general war with North Korea in the way that we did in Iraq in 2003.

      Which leaves the question, do we have the will to win a general war with North Korea in the way that we did with Japan in 1945?

      I fear that what would actually happen is a repeat of Iraq/1991, complete with the claims that of course the regime has been so weakened that it will surely fall Real Soon Now, and with the regime then not actually falling. More importantly, I worry that Kim and his advisers feel that this is what would happen. Because they might be OK with that.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      John, your assessment of the military situation seems about right to me, although you don’t define what you mean by “general war.” I assume it doesn’t involve the use of nuclear weapons, because if it did, I don’t think there is any chance we’d leave the Kim regime in power.

      What you don’t explain, though, is what the DPRK, RoK, USA, or anyone has to gain from starting such a war, or even continuing it should it start. What would it be about? For both sides, the greatest imperative would be to avoid escalation and especially nuclear use, and the only plausible target for an end state would be a return to the status quo ante.

      In contrast, in 1991 Saddam sought control of Kuwait. He had reason to believe that he could achieve that, including the words of the US ambassador. Once he saw Bush moving against him, after the invasion, he went into a defensive mode, beginning by declaring the annexation. He may have known he would lose the war, but could stay in power if he 1) did not appear to cower before the Americans, and 2) made no use of his chemical weapons.

      Kim is apparently raising a war scare as a way to establish his control over the military and to suppress or expose any disloyalty, but he has nothing to gain and much to lose from a major war.

      The wisdom of B-52 and B-2 flights over Korea can be debated, but they only underscore the stalemate that exists. We can’t risk Kim using nuclear weapons, and he can’t use them. Any war that doesn’t go nuclear is unlikely to end anywhere but on the 38th parallel.

      I don’t see why young Kim would be in a hurry to follow the example set by Saddam Hussein.

    • Anon2 (History)


      “What you don’t explain, though, is what the DPRK, RoK, USA, or anyone has to gain from starting such a war, or even continuing it should it start.”

      “Any war that doesn’t go nuclear is unlikely to end anywhere but on the 38th parallel.”

      The gains from finishing a conventional war are:

      1) Eliminating the long term and growing nuclear threat from a rogue state that has vowed to attack both ROK and the US, and that is clearly exporting nuclear and missile technology, and is likely willing to export warheads to other states and terrorist organizations for hard dollars.

      2) Fighting the war now when DPRK has only a few nuclear devices which are large and not readily deliverable is less damaging than fighting a war later when the DPRK has accumulated many nuclear warheads that are deliverable.

      3) Saving the surviving portion of the 24 million North Korean people who are starving, living in fear of their own government, in Gulags, and otherwise living in the worst conditions in the Pacific Rim or in any country not in civil war.

      4) Protecting one of the US’s greatest high tech and industrial tech manufacturing partners.

      There is certainly a high cost to any military action. However, it may be “less expensive” in total cost to move now rather than move later. It is as if a mentally disturbed person has taken over a city with his private army and threatened to kill the local population and the adjacent cities. If one knew with certainty that in the future the mentally disturbed person was going to attack the neighboring cities and then use their industrial base to grow his army to take over more cities with many deaths, the cost (in people killed) is clearly lower to eliminate the mentally disturbed person’s control on the one city before he gains more.

      With regard to a war started by the DPRK ending on the 38th Parallel, I don’t think so. I believe that certainly the United States and South Korea have a conventional war plan to achieve regime change within 4 to 8 weeks of an attack by the DPRK on the South. It is a military engineering problem.

      The essential solution to the problem is:

      1) The North attacks causing a predictable amount of damage in the first 24 hours while attempting to move troops into the South to hold people hostage and then sue for peace, just like Saddam in Gulf War 1.

      2) The ROK and US air assets eliminate all DPRK anti-air missile assets and then the DPRK Air Force within 24 hours.

      3) ROK/US uses its air assets to destroy any open view DPRK mechanized transportation or armor within 7 days.

      4) DPRK must keep troop movements dispersed to prevent air assets from destroying their foot army, effectively hiding in caves or terrain.

      5) DPRK starves out within 4 weeks due to lack of food.

      6) The hidden portion of the DPRK Army, dug in caves or bunkers are “buried in place”.

      DPRK using 5 to 10 nuclear weapons in a tactical or strategic role only allows US to use tactical weapons to hasten the end (faster burial in place of underground assets) and makes the death toll larger on both sides.

      This war is sadly an engineering problem where people’s lives are the being played like poker chips.

      Obama could make a mistake and allow the DPRK to survive after they launch a war, as it appears Truman made the same mistake. This is unlikely as Obama and ROK would be presented with the same data by ROK/US military professionals and would make the most rational choices. DPRK regime survival following the second Korean War is not a rational choice — Truman made that mistake the first time.

    • Andy (History)


      “There is certainly a high cost to any military action. However, it may be “less expensive” in total cost to move now rather than move later.”

      It also may be more “expensive.” Since the “expense” is sure to include, at the very least, a lot of blood, the case to “move now” rather than later will have to be a lot more certain than mere conjecture.

      “It is a military engineering problem.”

      War is not an engineering problem and treating it as one is best left to writers of fiction. Speaking of fiction:

      “2) The ROK and US air assets eliminate all DPRK anti-air missile assets and then the DPRK Air Force within 24 hours.”

      In 1991, for example, it took 10 days of sustained air operations involving well over 2,000 allied combat aircraft before coalition forces gained air supremacy. It took many weeks to deploy all the air power necessary to enable that. Korea presents many more challenges for air planners than Iraq did.

      “3) ROK/US uses its air assets to destroy any open view DPRK mechanized transportation or armor within 7 days.”

      Seven days is simply not possible, even as a simple “engineering” problem. Simply look look at the North Korean TOE and figure out how many sorties would be required.

    • John Schilling (History)

      “What you don’t explain, though, is what the DPRK, RoK, USA, or anyone has to gain from starting such a [general] war”

      Indeed, I do not expect a Declaration of War (long or short form) from any party to this longstanding dispute.

      Beyond that, “starting such a war” is ill-defined. For example, does the mysterious sinking of a warship start a general war? Consider ROKS Cheonan, and USS Maine. What about assassinating foreign presidents, or their wives? How large does an armed invasion have to be before it counts as “starting a war”?

      Your faith that the North Korean government will never “start a war”, your oft-implied belief that the only form of deterrence we need concern ourself is deterring the warmongering United States Government from unprovoked attacks against the peaceful North Koreans, seems misplaced. In the course of its attempts to Not Start A General War, the North Korean government has persistently engaged actions of the sort that tend to cause people to believe that They Just Started A General War.

      It is disturbingly likely that, no matter the balance of military power, North Korea will someday do something that will be seen in Seoul and Washington as having started a general war.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      John, you still didn’t explain why North Korea or anyone else would start or would pursue a new Korean war if they could avoid or could terminate it.

      The events you refer to can be described as provocations or skirmishes. I don’t think the circumstances that led to them are entirely clear. Some things may not be publicly known. But it is notable that none of these events led to further escalation, by either side. Nor did any of them compare in magnitude to what I think anyone might imagine if you use the phrase (which I see may have been Jeffrey’s phrase) “general war.”

      I don’t think anything I’ve written justifies your accusing me of an “oft-implied belief that the only form of deterrence we need concern ourself is deterring the warmongering United States Government from unprovoked attacks against the peaceful North Koreans”. I can accept that it may have appeared to you that some things I’ve written imply such a belief, but any such implication was unintended on my part, as that is not something I believe.

      For the record, I don’t think the US wants more trouble with North Korea, let alone a major war.

      I do believe, however, that the North Koreans are genuinely paranoid, that US policy and statements have understandably contributed to that paranoia, and that their pursuit of nuclear, missile and other military capabilities is largely intended for deterrence, and for political goals, since they can’t reasonably hope to win an aggressive war.

    • John Schilling (History)

      Reality check: For even the most well-documented historic wars, there is usually genuine dissent among serious historians as to who/what “started the war”, and where/when/why this happened. When the governor of Massachusetts sent a regiment of soldiers to confiscate a stockpile of illegal weapons, did he “start a war”? If so, why did he think starting a war over such a small matter was a good idea? And for that matter, who started World War One, and when, and how, and why?

      So when someone demands a reason why North Korea (or South Korea or anyone else) would “start a war” on the Korean peninsula, they are not even asking a question. The phrase, “start a war”, is so vague and meaningless as to be almost useless for effective communication.

      And if there is anyone left here who sincerely wants to understand how wars might well start on the Korean peninsula, they need to avoid phrases like “start a war” and its synonyms. It is impossible to meaningfully discuss or even understand the real problem, if one insists on believing that wars happen because someone wakes up one morning and says, “Today I will start such-and-such a war”.

      The same, incidentally, often applies to ending a war by any means short of surrender. Which is why we never quite officially got around to ending the last war on the Korean peninsula.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Mark writes:
      John, you still didn’t explain why North Korea or anyone else would start or would pursue a new Korean war if they could avoid or could terminate it.

      Again – your faith in deterrence is disturbing. To which I would expand, and your faith in successful crisis management by unstable regimes.

      They have every reason to act in a way that they believe maximizes the chances of their continuing to be in charge of NK, yes. And I believe they will do what they generally feel is in their best interest to do that.

      Their way of doing that, and judgement for how to do that, appear to be halfway to provoking an actual new war on the Korean peninsula.

      And I’m not sure they understand the US and South Korean thresholds for deciding that a war, or a response that might turn into one, are preferable to sitting on their hands. Another Cheonan and they’re likely to hear kaboom.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      People usually think of the 1991 war as having been started by Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait, although one could also point to the deliberateness with which GHW Bush went to war half a year later. Then again, Iraq had complaints against Kuwait for slant drilling, and the very existence of Kuwait was historically the work of the British.

      George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but the background to that was the combination of the 1991 war, the 9/11 attacks, and other factors that we could discuss without end.

      People usually think of Hitler as having started WW2 in Europe, but one can say that it was in some sense a continuation of WW1 and the Germans had legitimate grievances about the Versailles terms. And of course, the onset of WW1 is the classic case of out of control mobilization and preemptive war plans.

      It may be that every war, even one in which there seems to have been a clear first move by an aggressor, is actually preceded by a series of less-noticed events, provocations, preemptive moves, mobilizations, arms races, etc.

      But it also seems likely that in most cases, at most stages in the development and progress of a war, each party has a choice between escalation and deescalation, to seek a truce or to push for gains. Whether they make one choice or the other will depend on many factors, but it comes down to a choice to go one way or the other.

      If a provocation has been great enough, emotion might be a factor that overrides caution, but even the Cheonan sinking looks minor in comparison with what would be lost in a major war.

      I see no reason why any side in Korea would choose war or escalation. I do see the reasons why each side is engaging in these displays of belligerence and readiness. But they have no reasons to cross over the line, and in case they do cross it by accident, they will have every reason to cross back over as quickly as they can, leaving things back where they started.


      I don’t see that the current situation is “halfway to provoking an actual new war” for the reasons I’ve already stated.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Mark writes:
      I don’t see that the current situation is “halfway to provoking an actual new war” for the reasons I’ve already stated.

      The South have rather clearly telegraphed that they would retaliate for another shelling or sinking incident. That was the prior president there, but the new one seems no less determined. They have domestic political concerns, too.

      The people in Seoul don’t want to provoke the Mother of all Shellings, but there’s a limit to what they’re willing to accept without shooting back.

      I figure there are three scenarios in light of that announcement –

      One, they meant it – they’ve pre-authorized or are prepared to rapidly authorize a scaled in-kind retaliation (say, cruise missile to military facility) should another incident break out.

      Two, they mostly meant it, and will have a call to the US and one to China and a Cabinet meeting and their expectation of that process is that they’ll retaliate.

      Three, they didn’t mean it. Which would be frankly stupid and absurd politics on their part, it would destabilize both their internal political situation (looking weaker than not having said anything) and internationally (NK seeing them as not willing to follow through on deterrent threats).

      What do you think NK will do if say there’s a shelling incident next week, and SK fires a bunch of MLRS guided rounds right through the front doors of the 203mm long gun revetments across from Seoul, or pops one of their cruise missiles into a military facility somewhere north of the DMZ?

      Do you believe they will consider it tit-for-tat and de-escalate, or escalate it?

    • John Schilling (History)

      “It may be that every war, even one in which there seems to have been a clear first move by an aggressor, is actually preceded by a series of less-noticed events, provocations, preemptive moves, mobilizations, arms races, etc.”

      Elsewhere, we have the mobilizations, arms races, and so forth. On the Korean peninsula, we have the deliberate discharge of the heaviest sorts of non-nuclear ordnance against an enemy’s forces and territory. And you still think “clear first move by an aggressor” is a meaningful

      Yes, the Cheonan sinking was minor in comparison to what the ROK would lose in a general war. Pearl Harbor was minor in comparison to what the USA lost in WWII; we still declared war the next day. And we did not then, do not now, think of ourselves as having started that war, do not see Pearl Harbor as a “provocation” from which we could have chosen to de-escalate.

      What one person reasonably sees as a provocation short of war, another may reasonably see as an act of war. What one government sincerely intends to send the message, “this is very important to us; go any further and there will be war”, another government may understand as “the war started this morning”. What one intends as a limited war which should end with a mutually acceptable negotiated peace, another may see as total war for which the only possible outcomes are victory or surrender.

      Most parts of the world, we can at least draw a reasonably hard line that if it doesn’t involve military ordnance being fired, it isn’t actually a war yet. In Korea, even that doesn’t work. There is no way to distinguish between things that start wars and things that don’t, and apparently no inclination north of the 38th parallel to even try.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      I think that an outbreak of fighting in the immediate future is possible but I don’t think it is more likely than has been the case over the past years. If it occurs, I don’t know how far it will go but I expect it will stop short any full-scale ground offensive or any use of WMD, including the use of any major fraction of the DPRK’s conventional artillery and ballistic missiles against Seoul. The lack of a rationale, lack of a plausible prize to fight over, and great danger to both sides, are the reasons why I think both sides will be looking for a way to avoid escalation and terminate the fighting quickly.


      The “heaviest sorts of non-nuclear ordnance” may have been used in a few skirmishes of recent years, but their use was rather light in comparison with the potential. None of these events can be taken as “the clear first move by an aggressor” in any sense comparable to Pearl Harbor, the 1990 Kuwait invasion, or the 2003 Iraq invasion. Those were major strategic moves.

      The comparison with Pearl Harbor is particularly instructive. The outbreak of war with Japan was not unanticipated. Quite the contrary, it was viewed as inevitable. Roosevelt had wanted to bring the US into the war against the Axis powers, and had been preparing for this eventuality. Japan, Italy and Germany had all been pursuing brutal empire-building wars of aggression and conquest for years, and the need to defeat them was clear. The attack on Pearl Harbor was also a major strategic blow, but obviously not one great enough to alter the inevitable outcome of the war, once we’d joined it in alliance with the Sovs and Brits.

      I don’t think you can say anything remotely comparable about the current situation with North Korea.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Mark writes:
      I think that an outbreak of fighting in the immediate future is possible but I don’t think it is more likely than has been the case over the past years. If it occurs, I don’t know how far it will go but I expect it will stop short any full-scale ground offensive or any use of WMD, including the use of any major fraction of the DPRK’s conventional artillery and ballistic missiles against Seoul. The lack of a rationale, lack of a plausible prize to fight over, and great danger to both sides, are the reasons why I think both sides will be looking for a way to avoid escalation and terminate the fighting quickly.

      The same logic could be used to explain why sinking a ship and cross-border shelling would seem unlikely, and yet we’re a frigate and a number of artillery shells past that point.

      The question is, does the North Korean national command structure harbor beliefs that are likely to trip them into triggering a war. A number of varied prior incidents could have legitimately been internal NK political posturing. The rate of post-2000 activity, including three nuclear tests, a bunch of missiles, a frigate and an island, is not heartening in this regard.

      With the recent sharp increase in belligerence and SK’s standing threat that further attacks will not go unanswered, we are in different waters. We would be, completely independent of the likely deliverable nuclear threat, and the possible but not yet well substantiated ICBM threat.

      The mainland US being only possibly at risk from nuclear attack is not particularly reassuring given that Seoul and Tokyo and plenty else clearly are.

      The grand idea of nuclear deterrence has been that it induces people to act more calmly and rationally and to de-escalate conflicts. The horrible dark possibility all along has been that at some point, it might flip that (see crisis stability/instability inversion etc) for some party and enable them to see aggression as the more credible path rather than the alternative. It’s a lot easier to say that the US or (Russia / formerly USSR) or China are big enough and have enough voices that rationality and de-escalation is more likely to win out, but even there we’ve seen historical studies of the US and USSR having gotten it close to wrong more than once.

      What if this is the example, where having gotten what they feel is a credible nuclear deterrent has psyched them up, and they now feel that aggression is a better alternative?

  4. Anon2 (History)

    First, the Texas target is most likely George W. Bush’s ranch.

    Second, I prefer not to make jokes about Kim Jong Un just in case he is still idealistic and is being controlled by the older Junta members who are in effect his uncles. Making fun of him serves negative purpose. However, seeing him the photo subject of so much bellicose propaganda makes me doubt this hypothesis.

    The map is so unprofessional it is almost certainly for internal propaganda or further “signalling”.

  5. Arrigo (History)

    Someone said “cyber” and woke me up from my slumber…

    Jeffrey, I think we need to learn to distinguish the various levels of cyber attack otherwise we sound like those journalists who insist that a neutron bomb does no damage to the infrastructure at all…

    1) DDoS, aka “Distributed Denial of Service”, is in effect nothing other than flooding of resources be it a website or a comms channel. From a strategic perspective akin to jamming the radar but short of dropping a JDAM on it because the moment it stops all works again,

    2) virus/trojan is running something on the opponent’s systems in a, hopefully, stealthy way. The stuff you catch surfing the net is not what I would define “military grade” but can often do the job if you target the home computer of someone important, for example. The military grade stuff is better than what Stuxnet and all the other recent Kaspersky PR stunts have advertised and would be seriously targeted either as a sleeper ready to “detonate” on request or as exfiltration tools. Note that while these have a modicum of “remote control” capability they would be mainly designed to be as independent as possible,

    3) penetration testing is when you try and get into remote systems, normally as part of a Tiger Team exercise but obviously the “testing” becomes the real thing in military / gov’t agency terms. This is where you separate the wheat from the chaff: getting in, not getting caught and estabilishing a presence within the enemy’s infrastructure is hard, really hard. These presences, aka backdoors, are interactive, possibly always on and infinitely valuable: think the STASI’s chap in Willy Brandt’s office.

    Now, given the above, you will see that isolating the DPRK’s Internet link using 1) precludes you access to 2) and 3) which would hardly be a smart idea in the current War of Words between North and South would it?

    So, if I may offer a technical opinion, I would be careful in conflating the DPRK’s loss of Internet access with an attack…

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Someone should invite you to be a regular contributor to the blog 🙂

    • Arrigo (History)

      There is this chap who goes on and on about Monterrey: don’t they ever have invited speakers under Chatham House Rules? 😉

  6. krepon (History)

    Young Marshal Kim is in so far over his head he can no longer see light playing on the surface.

  7. Andy (History)

    Couple of thoughts:

    First, only four missiles? If you’re going to sell a US mainland attack plan to the people, why not go big?

    Second, to me it’s pretty clear the line for the “Texas” missile intersects the general’s head, which covers the entire SE portion of the US. Extend this line with some dead reckoning on a UTM map and it comes really really close to Tampa, Florida (home of CENTCOM and USSOCOM). To me, this would make a lot more sense than any base in Texas.

    Third, the large wall map behind the “attack” map is interesting too. I would like to know the label scheme – labels are either blue, yellow or white. On the US west coast there are a few yellow labels in southern California plus a white one in what looks like the Tucson area of Arizona (Davis Monthan maybe). In the western Pacific, Guam and Okinawa are labeled with yellow and green. There’s also a blue triangle in the seas around Guam -perhaps someone can translate the label for that.

  8. Allen Thomson (History)

    Austin, of course, thinks that everything is just so about them: #whyaustin.

    However, making the unlikely assumption that the map represents an attack on an actual military target in that vicinity, I’d guess Lackland AFB in San Antonio. It’s home of the Twenty-Fourth Air Force HQ and associated cyberunits.

  9. Ohioguy (History)

    DPRK compared to Iraq? Hardly. Assessments are that the military has food and fuel for 30 days. Local reports have military trucks stranded for lack of spare tires.

    The only conventional advantage that the DPRK has are it’s deeply ingrained fanaticism, and thousands of artillery tubes aimed at Seoul.

    One has to wonder if young Kim actually knows he will be obliterated, or if the degree of self delusion is so great that fantasy has become reality. Possession of nukes by a deeply insecure regime is a recipe for miscalculation. When the economy and food situation becomes so bleak that a “now or never” discussion takes place, that is the maximum point of danger. The Chinese have always kept the economic faucet dripping to avoid that point. . We have no transparency in that decision making. Given the frequent rhetoric, when and if real nuclear blackmail is taking place, will we properly recognize it?

    And, living in Tampa, I don’t sense the boys at CENTCOM prepping for incoming…

  10. George William Herbert (History)

    One idea that occurred to me, and I have not had any good way to dig into and therefore I throw out there for the peanut gallery to consider…

    Prior to 1973, Anwar Sadat in Egypt wanted peace with Israel. His domestic political considerations blocked him simply stepping up and making peace, though that was his goal.

    He saw the potential of a small war with Israel in appeasing his own war party, who he could then bring on board with a longer term peace ageement. The Yom Kippur war happened because Sadat in the South wanted to find the domestic maneuvering room to negotiate peace, and Assad in the North wanted the Golan Heights back (and was in a credible military position to try getting them back).

    Is it possible that the current young Kim is thinking along Sadat’s lines here?

    Would we be able to tell from the outside? What behaviors would be indicators one way or the other?

    • Cameron (History)

      While it’s possible, I don’t think so.

      Sadat was dealing with a sense of nationalist anger over losing the Sinai and a feeling that the military could not defeat the IDF. A tactical victory gave Egypt a sense that they were not being dictated to, but meeting as equals to conclude a honorable peace.

      If NK was doing something similiar, there would have to be a similiar feeling of defeat to overcome. What I know of NK doesn’t include that as a narrative point. The strikes seem to be on the level of “see the young God-King who can strike out at our enemies without retaliation, he is worthy to lead.”

      If he wants detente, I’d expect it to come after a consolidation of personal power internally. But those kinds of changes would undermine the reason for his power in the first place, so I don’t see them as likely.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The situations are clearly not exactly analogous but I am wondering if it’s more generically a confrontation to set up internal conditions which can lead to peace talks.

      I don’t have good reason to believe it is, but exploring scenarios is useful.

    • Magpie (History)

      No no, I like it. That’s definitely a possibility – though certainly not a definite! Haha.

      Wish I’d seen this before posting way up higher, but that’s a real possibility. I’ll never accept “he’s just a maniac” as a reason for anything a nation does, even if it’s true sometimes. Working out what *might* be going on is a lot more useful than just shrugging – it gives you something to be wrong ABOUT. Being “constructively wrong” is a good framework to being more right.

      I strongly feel that the North is trying to provoke the South into an escalation. What they expect to happen after that is the question. My pick is that they’re raising brand awareness in China to shore up their crumbling support, essentially, but your idea has a lot of merit, I reckon.

      They’ve gone further than they have in a long, loooong time without having shot anything. It comes as the South have had a rise in jingoistic nationalism – a lot of chest-beating in the press, a lot of pressure on the leadership to look tough. The North has really pushed the fear-factor this time around. They’re practically begging someone to fire a shell over the border.

      If they can have a brief, sharp exchange, they’ve got the ability to shut it down fast as long as they don’t toast Seoul or actually deploy nukes – there’s some room to move here without crossing over into certain death. That could let Kim call off the war, grab some moral high-ground (especially if the south can be convinced to shoot first), and renegotiate the armistice “in the interests of saving Korean lives”.

      Sell it at home as a victory, and the new border conditions as concessions forced from the imperialists.

      Sell it in China as standing up to the very powers that China is going to be coming up against if they keep expanding off-shore. “We’re a valuable friend to have”.

      Sell it to the rest of the world as a mini-perestroika, and a way for us all to pat ourselves on the back for avoiding a greater conflict.

      After that: move to expand the international engagement, or prepare for another round of provocations, or bribe / shoot malconents, or otherwise continue whatever the hell it was they were doing.

    • Magpie (History)

      PS: One thing, though: whatever they’re doing, if they do push for a wee little war Yom Kippur style, they’ve got to keep things down in the order of a few *hours*, because they need to be able to hold on to a threat to flatten Seoul without needing to use it. That means a strictly limited exchange, ended before anyone has enough certainty to authorise a full response.

      Nuclear warheads NK can’t preserve a conventional threat then they’re going to be in an ‘orrible weak position going forward.

      *If* that’s what they’re doing, there’s a very fine line.

      Wonder if they’ve got enough people in the South to pull it off? One “garbled” communication would do the trick, probably, but they’d want at least a couple of “accidents” to permit a decent retaliatory hit, and ensure enough confusion on the Southern side to buy everyone some time to back down (and oh, doesn’t the recent cut in comms buy them that time?).

      Ahhhh, wild speculation. I love it so. The world is definitely a lot more interesting in my head.

      So here’s Kim Mag-pi’s plan (hey, if you’re speculating, go all-in):

      1. A section of the South Korean line well to the east erroneously gets the order to fire, believing they’re under attack. Possibly they actually do come under attack. Possibly they don’t shoot and NK just says they did. But c’mon, surely we’ve got one decent false-flag op in our intel folk? Let’s buy some moral high-ground!

      2. NK responds at the absolute upper boundary of what an angry person might agree was “proportionate”, while simultaneously demanding a cease fire. Kim Mag-pi is especially keen on something being blown up at sea, but craters will do in a pinch.

      3. Any further fire along the eastern line will be responded to similarly, but we’ll try to keep it quiet in the west.

      4. Once we’ve pushed it as far as we think we can (a couple of hours at most), the North will very publically (internet-style, probably being posted by expats but over Kim’s sig-block) request / demand a cease-fire, point to their own noble restraint (“we’re not shooting Seoul”), and maybe even unilaterally cease-fire on their side of the border, in an angry-brooding sort of way (“how dare you put so many lives in danger?”). Leave the threat to have downtown Seoul re-zoned as a bomb crater unstated, but clear.

      Cue the hard sell to the various audiences as per post above.


    • Cameron (History)

      I certainly don’t want to stop exploring scenerios. But looking at the differences between this situation and one where a conflict was started in order to create a situation where peace can be reached, I don’t think its happening that way.

      In general the Kim dynasty holds the US/ROK as a threat to maintain internal control. Making a lasting peace would require steps to set up a new form of control, and I think we’d see those steps.

      Right now if you’re hungry it’s both the fault of the US for their blockade of DPRK, and a patriotic sacrifice in the face of the enemy. If that enemy goes away chickens start coming home to roost.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Cameron wrote:
      I certainly don’t want to stop exploring scenerios. But looking at the differences between this situation and one where a conflict was started in order to create a situation where peace can be reached, I don’t think its happening that way.

      In general the Kim dynasty holds the US/ROK as a threat to maintain internal control. Making a lasting peace would require steps to set up a new form of control, and I think we’d see those steps.

      Right now if you’re hungry it’s both the fault of the US for their blockade of DPRK, and a patriotic sacrifice in the face of the enemy. If that enemy goes away chickens start coming home to roost.

      There are two levels to this.

      Level one is what the populace as a whole is told. They play a very loud propaganda game with insane claims, etc. But they also have the country so militarized and locked down that a popular uprising seems unlikely.

      Level two is what the military factions think and are told.

      Sadat’s internal problem was much more with his generals and ministers than his population. I believe that the same could be said for Kim; he’s new, he’s consolidating power, even some of his loyal allies may be less oriented towards peaceful solutions than ongoing militaristic aggression.

      Looking at the surface, popular PR aspect is less useful than looking down further into the leadership / personalities / military and government factions game.

      Sadly, despite trying to follow the various popular accounts, I still have little good sense of what’s really going on at that level in NK. It’s sufficiently opaque and poorly covered to be a challenge.

  11. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Your idea would make more sense if in 2007 South Korea had launched a surprise attack on the North and seized a big chunk of territory which it was in the process of colonizing.

    But yes, one hopeful interpretation of present saber-rattling is that Kim’s longer-term intent is to seek peace and opening to the South, but first he has to establish his own authority over the military. A small war might help with that, but it is too risky, for the reasons you and John have been arguing. So, I don’t think it will go that far, but if it does, I still think Kim and everyone else involved will want to keep it small.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      I don’t think this is the most likely idea for what’s going on, but I try to keep an open mind and look for alternate explanations.

    • Magpie (History)

      It’s damn unlikely – but as long as the alternative appears to be “ahhh, he’s just crazy!” then I prefer your idea.

      There is an epic lack of anything to point to a real internal threat to his power. Quite the opposite (in as much as we can see anything at all). So that leaves… what?

  12. George William Herbert (History)

    Press reports (CNN) that SBX-1 is on the move.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Well, it is April Fool’s Day.

    • Magpie (History)

      Aww now, don’t be making fun of Humpty!

  13. Bill (History)

    Wait’ll he finds out it was anonymous.

    Of course, for domestic consumption he’ll just pretend they’re “another arm of the revanchist reactionary running dogs of the Imperial United States,” but internationally he’ll be a laughingstock.

    Not that he’s not already; lights won’t come on? Nuke the power company. Paper’s late? Nuke the paperboy.

  14. ChrisV (History)

    Now might be a good time to remember the 1983 war-scare where paranoid USSR leadership thought NATO’s Able Archer exercise was a prelude to war.

    It is likely that no one outside of the DPRK knows how much control Kim Jong Un really has. Is he a complete dictator or are his aunt and uncle pulling most of the strings? Or somewhere in between those two extremes?

    The DPRK could not invade and hold all of the ROK. They might try to capture only a small area along the DMZ and then attempt to use it as a bargaining chip.

    The DPRK would only start an all out war if the leadership felt their grasp on power was slipping beyond a point of no return. Their choice: Go to war or face a fate similar to that of Romanian’s late dictator.

  15. jeannick (History)

    Anon 2 might be on something ,
    the pudgy Kim ill Dooh doesn’t strike me as a master politician ,
    this whole brinkmanship could have an element of internal power struggle to silence the “progressives”
    as against the “juche” hardliners.
    The young “sun of the Nation ” or whatever seems to me to be an empty puppet for his feuding familly

    So far the U.S. and ROK have show some resolve but a general lack of enthusiam to start shooting
    the worry is that when both sides engage in brinkmanship a fall is a possibility ,

    I didn’t notice anyone mentionning the Pueblo incident?

  16. Shawn Hughes (History)

    Let me throw a couple of things into this:
    One-I vote the target is Pantex. Even a conventional strike there would hobble our ability to maintain the Triad.

    Two- missile, smisshile. All he has to do is load one nuc system onto a boat and ram it into the Port of Los Angeles, or pretty much anywhere. Close doesn’t count as much in the thousand ton and above category, amirite?


  17. ACT (History)

    hello all, new here.

    My concern is what has just transpired; North Korea has closed the last facility that might permit communication between it and the South, and it has also announced that it has “given final authorization” to its forces to “launch a nuclear strike on the United States”, and has apparently been moving an LRBM to a launch site (see:

    i’m no strategist, but i’d like to know what all of you think given this, and that the PRC is apparently massing advanced armor and jets near its border with North Korea.

    My own suspicion is that if a general conflict breaks out (now increasingly likely), the PRC will intervene on the side of North Korea, attempting to defeat the U.S in a land war (a standoff that some PLA academics have been hoping and preparing for since at least Gulf War 1 [see the Type 99A2 MBT, designed to defeat the M1A2]).

    you might ask why; i point you to Chinese history, a careful analysis of which–coupled with the rhetoric of the PRC regarding “historic territory”–suggests the following; what the PRC would gain from a war in Korea with the U.S is the shattering of the notion of the U.S as a credible partner in alliances as well as undermining confidence in the U.S military at the regional level, and–assuming PRC victory–forcing the capitulation of other nations on various key items, including the Senkaku Islands (Japan), as well as the “nine-dashed-line” in general. This would effectively allow the PRC to re-establish the Chinese Empire’s suzerainty over the region, since–near as i can tell–the raison d’etre of the PRC in the long run is the re-setting of the geopolitical clock to the period before the arrival of european powers.

    • Magpie (History)

      Well the news reports are a bit off – Musudans can hit any part of Japan from any part of North Korea, even with highly pessimistic range estimates (and assuming they even work). There’s no special significance to moving one around. In fact, with tensions high they’d be silly not to be moving a fair amount of their high-value targets around. If anything, seeing one on a train and not a TEL is a pretty poor effort. C’mon guys! Where’s your readiness at?

      I’m still very much of the opinion that NK is trying for a very brief, confused artillery war, keeping well away from Seoul, and that they’ll hold back all their longer-range missiles, and especially nukes, as an additional threat to use to cool things down again.

      They can hope to exchange fire on a limited front (possibly also at sea) and come out ahead, but there’s no way they could expect any territorial gains. They can maybe, JUST, claim to win a war that lasts a few hours, and then only by explioting the lack of comms. After that… No.

      I have no doubt that China is looking to increase its power in east asia, especially at sea, but I don’t think they’re ready for a serious confrontation with the US – and even if they were, they don’t remotely need one yet, anyway. There’s WAY more benefit to be had in the current basically-friendly (almost symbiotic!) relationhip.

      China v US is probably going to happen eventually, but not today. Give it another ten years, and maybe. If NK was silly enough to (and they’re not, and won’t) push China into a war, they’d be dropped faster than Major Kong. Not gunna happen.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The significance of moving a Musudan to the coast is that you can then launch it without fear of the wreckage falling on your own territory if it doesn’t work. And without fear of the rest of the world not noticing, or writing it off as just another Nodong or something.

      These are not particularly important if the Norks are actually planning to nuke someone for the Great Leader’s next birthday party. They are somewhat important if the Norks are planning to celebrate with a high-profile test launch.

  18. SW (History)

    (16.54, 3 April). Jeffrey Lewis writes [in the Lowy Interpreter blog] ‘Oh, I was just being inclusive. Australia is participating in KEY RESOLVE, so it is implicated in all the signaling the US is doing with SSNs, B52s and B2s. It seemed odd to me to omit it.’

    Full marks for levity, Dr Lewis. How exactly is Australia implicated in the USAF B-2 flights undertaken on 28 March, a week after Key Resolve concluded?

    Australia, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, and the United Kingdom were all the exercise participants, as five sending states of the original United Nations Command. As a consequence, Is Colombia also mplicated in all the signaling the US is doing? Is Copnhagen a potential NK missile target, because the Danes sent a hospital ship three times in 1951-53?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      The B-2 flight occurred under the FOAL EAGLE part of FOAL EAGLE/KEY RESOLVE 2013. The US treats it as one big exercise and calls it FOAL EAGE/KEY RESOVE. The DPRK also treats it as the same thing. (“Key Resolve and Foal Eagle are a grave military provocation and undisguised declaration of a war against the DPRK.”)

      So, yes.

  19. Denis (History)

    Schilling: “Yes, the Cheonan sinking was minor in comparison to what the ROK would lose in a general war. Pearl Harbor was minor in comparison to what the USA lost in WWII; we still declared war the next day.”

    Whoa, dude. With all respect, I am stunned that anyone would seriously equate Cheonan w/ Pearl Harbor. Stunned. There is no comparison.

    While there are still unknowns surrounding PH, like whether the Japanese sent a declaration of war or other communications to FDR prior to the attack, there is no question that it was an unprovoked attack by one sovereign nation against the territory of another. By comparison we still do not know who, if anybody, sunk the Cheonan . . . or why.

    Equating Cheonan w/ PH demonstrates a disturbing naivete in accepting the self-serving “conclusions” of the US/SoKo that the Cheonan was sunk by a NoKo torpedo. The US was flat out attacked at PH during a time of war, whilst there is considerable doubt that the SoKo boat was attacked, or, if it was, that the attack was unprovoked. Further distinctions between the two are too numerous to list, but I’ll try a few:

    1. The Cheonan was operating in waters claimed by NoKo. The Japanese had no claim to Hawaii.
    2. The Cheonan sinking followed a number if incidents in the area where NoKo vessels were attacked by SoKo. There were no such US attacks on Japanese ships prior to PH.
    3. The Cheonan was operating in shallow waters not considered navigable. The bow was recovered from 20 ft of water. More than one SoKo expert suggested the boat ran aground — i.e., the torpedo theory has major alternatives.
    4. The US and SoKo were carrying out anti-sub maneuvers nearby, probably provoking NoKo, from NoKo’s point of view. There was no provocation of the Japanese.
    5. The SoKo government initially stated publicly that there was no evidence of NoKo involvement. Likewise the initial CIA and USN reports denied that any NoKo subs were operating in that area.
    6. The results of the “official” investigation by US/SoKo and their allies claiming a toredo attack has never been released.
    7. One point of contention raised by NoKo is how the hell could so many intact torpedo parts be recovered from a torpedo alleged to have sunk a corvette, not by hitting it but by exploding next to it.

    That SoKo did not retaliate for Cheonan likely means the “report” was a hoax, not that SoKo did some body-count calculus and came to the conclusion that revenge wasn’t worth it.

    My point is that you have taken the bait on the Cheonan incident and in doing so you are making Mark’s point for him that in most of these international incidents that could or do lead to war, nobody really knows what the hell is going on. PH was analytically “clean;” the Cheonan is about as “dirty” as it gets. To equate the two is, like, totally weird.

    Remember the Maine. To forget it is to become another of the suckers needed to get wars going and keep them going.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The Cheonan did not “run aground” or suffer an accident; it was sunk by an underwater explosion a few meters below and to one side of amidships. The hull cracked in half as it sank, the blast damage pattern is distinctive and evident in the salvaged sections, there were uniform crew reports of shock and a water column which are characteristic of a nearby underwater explosion.

      If you believe anything else you are not technically qualified and merely falling for conspiracy theorists’ babble.

      The source of the underwater explosion is subject to some dispute. South Korea did salvage fragments of a torpedo which is generally agreed to be a modern NK torpedo model from the ocean floor nearby. Even the Chinese and Russians admit that the torpedo sections appear to legitimately be NK. There is some dispute as to whether they were “old” – predated the Cheonan sinking – or new. It is possible that the NK had a torpedo exercise on their side of the border some time between the introduction of that model and the Cheonan incident, where the torpedo ended up in SK waters.

      They did not find mine fragments or other torpedo fragments.

      It is possible that another torpedo, or a mine, was the source of the explosion. The logic that the torpedo fragments found are the source of the explosion is hard to argue with, though.

      Additionally, several NK subs were on a special mission at the time, and returned to port shortly after.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      7. One point of contention raised by NoKo is how the hell could so many intact torpedo parts be recovered from a torpedo alleged to have sunk a corvette, not by hitting it but by exploding next to it.

      The parts recovered were at the absolute aft end of the torpedo; the electric motor, and the propellors/fins/driveshaft. The torpedo is 7.3 meters long overall. The motor front is about 1.8 meters from the tail, the fins and propellors section are the last 60 cm or so (except for the driveshaft that went between the two). The 250 kg (550 lb) warhead is at the forwards end of the torpedo, roughly 75 cm long and extending roughly from 75 to 150 cm from the nose. There are about 4 meters between the aft end of the warhead and the front of the electric motor, with the batteries section between them.

      A 250 kilogram explosion 4 meters away would not vaporize those parts. The damage seen is approximately correct for a “warshot” – non-exercise-warhead, but military antiship warhead with live explosives.

      Further, torpedos have generally been designed to run underneath and explode under or nearly under (just to one side) the target since WW II. The US torpedo problems at the start of the war were half magnetic proximity fuze failures and half contact fuzes with insufficiently stiff firing pins, that worked on glancing blows but failed if you hit the target straight on. The technology for running under and detonating under targets is literally 75 years old now and common to nearly every torpedo in use today. Directly underneath is more effective but just to one side is good enough for smaller ships.

      In rough proportion, the ship hull side was probably as close to the explosion as the aft end of the torpedo, though in different directions.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      If I’m “Mark” then I don’t think I meant to say that nobody knows what happened in the Cheonan incident. I tend to think that the international investigation into the incident was not faked and it’s pretty unreasonable to think it was anything else than a deliberately launched North Korean torpedo.

      It is less clear that the sinking was authorized by Pyongyang, but I’d have no problem believing that.

      What we don’t know is what reason the North Koreans may have had, or thought they had. As you pointed out, the ship was in disputed waters, and we don’t know what it was doing or what else the South Koreans may have been up to, or that the North Koreans thought they were up to.

      Even if it was nothing but a deliberate display of belligerence, a provocation as we say, the intention may have been more to deter or warn than to provoke.

      In any case, it was hardly comparable to Pearl Harbor. The loss of one corvette was hardly a strategic blow to South Korea, so that would have been a very stupid way to launch a war if that were the intent.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Please take the Cheonan conspiracy theories somewhere else.

    • jeannick (History)

      torpedoes exploding next to the hull of a cargo ship make it crumble , the hydro-static stress are held in check by a balancing of the pressures on both sides ,

      if one side loose its structural integrity the ship break
      that’s the theory anyway , it certainly work with cargo ships ,
      with a warship , I don’t know,they are stronger
      a full contact impact would create a lot of internal damage with a big hole in the middle , crumbling would then happen .

      The cheonan incident is nothing like Pearl Harbor
      or the Maine either , if anything some vague similarity could be drawn with the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      This is not exactly the right place for this, but…

      Jeannick –

      “Crumble” is not an accurate description. Underwater explosion effects are extremely complicated, with a shockwave, then complex bulk water movement, bubble column movement, ships being shoved up then pulled down, etc.

      Details of the ship’s structural response depend wildly on the detailed conditions. Primary (overall hull bending), secondary (response of the bottom or side between bulkheads), and tertiary (response of individual plates and stiffeners) all have to be analyzed. Size and depth and position of the explosion. Water conditions around, such as shallow bottom.

      We could put ten or twenty thousand words here on the subject, but you can find them elsewhere in the literature and in the Cheonan reports. The effects on the ship match what one would expect with a warhead about that big at about that distance. There’s no credible argument against it having been an explosion in the water.

    • Denis (History)

      I concur w/ Jeffrey, this is not the place for airing Cheonan conspiracy thx, and it’s pretty clear that wasn’t my intent. Schilling raised Cheonan by equating it to PH, which made me, and other commentators, gag. My point was that there is no valid comparison and one of the reasons why is the uncertainty as to the cause/perpetrators of the Cheonan sinking viz the absolute identity of the cause/perpetrators of PH’s destruction.

      I am not taking any position on Cheonan other than that there are a lot of unanswered questions related to Cheonan that do not exist w/ respect to PH. George appears to have answered all those questions to his satisfaction and his fascinating rendition of facts seems to glue the official US/SOKO line together quite well, and that goes a long way to convincing me. Nevertheless, my understanding is that the official report was never made public, so I’ll remain skeptical until I see his sources/data. And waiting to see the data is not the same as buying into or promoting a conspiracy.

  20. Jme (History)

    Hi all, another long time reader posting newbie… and thank you to you all, I’ve learned a ton hear in the last year or two.

    I have a big question I’ve developed seeing our response to this crisis. As I understand what’s available in the public media North Korea is deploying and or readying a missile(s) of significant range for a test, show of force, provocation etc. The implications are it is either Musudan or possibly KN-08. This is where I’m confused… how serious is this threat?

    Assuming the US official public opinion is the KN-08 was most likely a mock-up, why the massive (ok maybe just large) build up of forces to deal with another possible test of it or a less capable IRBM?

    2 BMD destroyers, Another AN/TPY-2 to Japan, SBX to Sea of Japan, THAAD to Guam and in Hawaii, PAC-3 all over the Pacific already. To me this is a pretty serious set of deployments. And not just flashy for TV like F-22s and B-2 over flights.

    With what I’ve learned here about ballistic missile defense it looks like we’re suddenly very serious about NorKo ability to deliver missiles. 3 tiers of defense (GBI, AEGIS/THAAD, PAC-3) and the ability to shoot look shoot, plus point defense with PAC-3? Yet the missile we’re looking at is officially untested, in either case, correct?

    So why this reaction? And if we take Musudan this seriously without testing, why do we discount KN-08 because it hasn’t been launched/tested?

    I’ve read all the debates about the TEL and differences in the missiles shown in the parade last year, but have never understood why after reports of their being in the field after the parade, we’ve stuck to the hopeful idea KN-08 isn’t really a threat.

    Are we seeing between this reaction, the announcement that we’re going to expand the GBI force on the pacific rim, plus on-going official mention of NKs road mobile ICBM, signal we’re no longer so sure it was a fake?

    Does this make any of you think KN-08 is a current legitimate threat? Is the official US position on it changing?

    • Magpie (History)

      Security theatre, I reckon.

      Guam, for exmaple, is perfectly safe already, but folk on Guam don’t necessarily feel safe. So you put on a show that doesn’t actually make them safer (because they already were as safe as it gets), but makes them *feel* safer.

      There is a non-zero chance some idiot lobs something serious somewhere they shouldn’t in SK or Japan, and it’s nice to have some insurance, but the rest is mostly theatre too (IMHO). The worries over missiles are mostly way overblown (mostly), so it doesn’t hurt to reassure people in Japan and SK.

      (It’s not a zero threat – but between likelihood they’d lob missiles, existing chances of interception, unreliable/untested tech, and almost-certainly conventional warheads even if all the rest of the planets aligned, you’re still WAY more likely to die in a car crash in Seoul tonight).

      It’ll be strongly in NK’s interests to keep most of the long-range stuff back even in the (immensly unlikey, IMO) case of a serious war. As long as we’re not 100% sure what they can do, they’ve got a better bargaining chip to fend off ultimate defeat.

    • kme (History)

      Magpie, why does it matter in the political scheme of things how safe folk on Guam feel? They’re not exactly a significant constituency.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The Musudan is a single-stage missile which appears to be a stretched R-27 (aka SS-N-6), a Soviet-era missile with a long and successful track record. There is good reason to believe the North Koreans have purchased either entire R-27 missiles or at least parts kits, and hired technical advisors from the original manufacturer.

      The KN-08 is a three-stage missile which, while it may incorporate tested R-27 and Nodong parts, is of generally new design from top to bottom.

      It is unlikely that either of these missiles are outright hoaxes; the Norks almost certainly mean to have working nuclear-tipped Musudans to threaten East Asian targets and working nuclear-tipped KN-08s to threaten CONUS targets. But as for where they stand today:

      The Musudan needs to be tested to be considered a robust, operational system. The North Koreans could have botched something in lengthening the tanks, they could have misread the R-27 owners’ manual (happens more often than you’d think), there could be issues with the North Korean basing and launch operations scheme, etc. But if they test a Musudan, there’s a good chance it will work. And if they’ve actually deployed it without testing, that’s not completely insane – the odds of it working as is are high enough that it would have some deterrent effect and perhaps some operational utility.

      The KN-08 also needs to be tested to be considered an operational system, but to a much higher degree. There are far more things to go wrong with the KN-08, and far less prior heritage to provide any confidence. The first KN-08 test will almost certainly fail. The next KN-08 test will probably fail as well. Even if the first test succeeds, the second test will still likely fail. To get from where North Korea is now, to an operational KN-08, will probably require multiple tests with several months of failure analysis and redesign between each one, and several months after that to go into production with the final, proven design.

      So it is probably worth worrying slightly that the present situation, grossly mishandled by either side, could result in a nuclear-armed Musudan actually reaching
      Yokohama or Guam or the like. There is much less reason to worry about a nuclear-armed KN-08 hitting Seattle or San Francisco, at least this month or next.

      And if the Norks are planning to inspire fear and awe, rather than laughter and derision, they’ll test a Musudan rather than a KN-08 this time around. The first KN-08 test, being likely to fail, will come when nobody is paying much attention rather than when Pyongyang is begging for attention.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      …and press reports are now that the two fueled missiles on the NK east coast are Musudans.

    • kevin (History)

      Not sure where people get enough evidence to support KN-08 or any other NoKor ballistic missile are NOT tested. USA is now just moving radar to detect missile launch. Satellite pictures are just a moment in time and does NOT cover 24 hours/day event. Especially, if test were done at night in the launch vehicle in a unknow location, that would be impossilbe to know and while many NoKor missiles were tested by Iran and Pakistan. Another option, NoKor would just carry the missile on a cargo ship and tested in middle of OCEAN where there are no stationary radar. So where is this conclusion of “NOT TESTED” come from???

    • Jeffrey (History)

      DSP satellites (which are not imaging satellites) are in geostationary orbit, so actually they do provide continuous monitoring.

      The US, Japan and Korea all have radars that provide additional coverage.

    • j_kies (History)

      I believe the public statements of the Vice Chief of Staff and the DNI are on record that the US officially believes that things called Musudan and the KN-08 exist. On the other hand, people can and do disagree with the official story based on their professional backgrounds.

      I firmly disbelieve in any untested missiles, and I believe its profoundly unwise to base significant policy and military reactions on manuevers with such mythical creatures. While others have other opinions, I am of the engineering opinion that if a KN-08 was an actual missile it would represent a very badly designed MRBM bordering on a badly designed IRBM.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      “I firmly disbelieve in any untested missiles, and I believe its profoundly unwise to base significant policy and military reactions on manuevers with such mythical creatures.”

      Lord knows I agree with the sentiment, but I think you’ve expressed it too strongly. The North Koreans get some benefit out of untested missiles, just not anywhere near the full measure. So, I would apply the mythical creature discount which minimizes, but does not wholly eliminate, the need for policy change.

      But that is a minor quibble.

      I have plenty of unanswered questions about the KN-08, for sure.

    • John Schilling (History)


      The KN-08 has absolutely not been tested. The Musudan has probably not been tested; if it has, it was tested in Iran and at greatly reduced range.

      It is not possible to launch a missile of that size, anywhere on Earth except maybe the Antarctic interior, any time of day or night, without the engine’s exhaust being immediately detected and characterized by the infrared sensors on the DSP and SBIRS-High satellites. And probably the equivalent Russian system, though I am less confident that this still provides the full coverage it did in the Soviet era. Rocket engines fundamentally run hot, in a way nothing else made by man or nature does, and we are constantly looking for that signature. That’s how we know when people are shooting at us; radar never was good enough for that job.

      In the case of the Musudan, the approximate size and thrust level is sufficiently similar to the known North Korean Nodong missiles (and its foreign variants) that it might be possible to hide a Musudan test in the midst of a Nodong test series. Or it might not but the U.S. and Russian governments might not let on that they caught the deception in order to keep the full capabilities of their satellites secret. For a launch from the Korean peninsula, secondary sensors operated by multiple governments, plus the ability to recover wreckage from offshore impact sites, makes it effectively impossible to hide a Musudan test.

      Reports that a single Musudan was tested by (or at least in) Iran are unconfirmed, unlikely, but at least within the realm of possibility. Any such test would necessarily have been at reduced range, and thus not fully validate the new missile, as a full-range test would probably have landed outside Iran and certainly have revealed the missile as Not A Nodong.

    • j_kies (History)

      Any NK benefit from untested missiles comes purely from inappropriate US / international beliefs, those inappropriate beliefs should be moderated. The farther you want a missile to fly the more stressing the engineering constraints become thus criticality of properly instrumented flight test. The A4/V2 –> Scud family was designed for manufacture by slave labor and they pushed that design out to the approximate limits of ~ 1200 km ground range domain. I leave the historic record of failed flight tests / warshots of the V2 – SS1 to a research project but I recall the system reliability all in as less than 70%.

      Any longer range systems require better energetics and/or mass fractions thus the demand for properly instrumented flight test rises proportionally. If the Norks wish to show off their engineering competence in the manufacture of a BFRC, the launch of a Musudan off a TEL should provide that event for all interested parties.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      We love the BFRC.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The question should not be, is an untested ICBM going to be reliable at all… the answer is unambiguously no.

      The question is, will it be reliable enough.

      At an upper bound of 50% reliable that’s certainly enough. 25%, even 12.5% might be enough. At 12.5% if they have eight one would probably make it to the US absent functional NMD. At 6.25% and eight of them there’s still a decent chance one would make it.

      New western launch vehicles, of roughly equivalent complexity, average about 50% on first few flights…

      Even granting steady improvement between flights, the NKs had two failures before they orbited something successfully. That would seem to indicate an untested small fleet of vehicles all fired at once, without tech fixes in between, would not be as good as 50%.

    • j_kies (History)


      Respectfully sir; WTF are you saying? What kind of reliability could anyone achieve out of an untested vehicle stack? I am pretty certain that the best the US can do with rather ornate levels of computer simulation isn’t in this range nor would we try. Even Space-X had huge amounts of ground test, firings and the Falcon-1 failures before they could strap together the Falcon-9.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The intelligence community have hinted at KN-08 ground test firings, but specifics are vague.

      Things like structures performance in flight and the dynamics of stage separation and the like (and flight reliability of avionics) are pretty hard to test on the ground.

      The rocket motor components appear to be off the shelf, which helps reduce a lot of risk areas. But there are others.

      Ultimately, each flight ends up having specific behavior limits, and the reliability ends up being a horse race between the design performance and actual as-built margins, and the real world’s actual stress and environment. There are spectra for winds and dynamic conditions and structural loads one can predict, but until you fly you can’t be 100% sure what they’ll look like. So you include margins, and the lower the margins the higher the chance something fails in flight.

    • j_kies (History)

      Granted, lets play the hypotheticals, ‘if you were to advise the policy makers’ what specifically would you assess for range-payload curves as designed and what odds would you give on the success or which failure mode would you pick on the first flight?

      As background, you have seen all the parade pictures, I assume you looked at the workmanship in the Unha tank pickup pictures and you have reasonble understanding of the ‘rocket science’ (actually its all the grubby rocket engineering that matters).

      My bets are on a very prompt BFRC because only an idiot would do a long range high mass-fraction liquid on a TEL especially without a canister. How do you pronounce “Nedelin” in Korean anyway?

    • George William Herbert (History)

      J_kies writes:
      George – Granted, lets play the hypotheticals, ‘if you were to advise the policy makers’ what specifically would you assess for range-payload curves as designed and what odds would you give on the success or which failure mode would you pick on the first flight?

      As background, you have seen all the parade pictures, I assume you looked at the workmanship in the Unha tank pickup pictures and you have reasonble understanding of the ‘rocket science’ (actually its all the grubby rocket engineering that matters).

      In detail, to all the above. I note without too much embarrassment that the North Koreans have better welders than I am at the moment (I haven’t tried weldeding my own rocket pressure tanks; overall quality isn’t there to be confident there yet).

      My bets are on a very prompt BFRC because only an idiot would do a long range high mass-fraction liquid on a TEL especially without a canister. How do you pronounce “Nedelin” in Korean anyway?

      Here’s how I approach it.

      Let’s work backwards from their strategic goals.

      They want to hold their adversaries at risk, or be felt to credibly do so. The US and SK are at the top of the lists, but Japan, and potentially allies such as USSR and China also are on the list.

      The rest of this is a map exercise. It’s about 1,000 km to Beijing. It’s abut 2,000 km to Guandong. All of SK is within 600 km of central NK. Japan is all less than 2,000 km.

      3,300 km to Guam. 6,100 km to Greely (if they wanted to strike our NMD facility). 8,000+ km to Seattle; over 11,000 km to Texas (11,500 to Virginia, plus or minus, and not much they’d credibly want to attack further than that).

      6,500 km to Moscow.

      I cannot think of a useful thing for them to do with a nuclear missile system with more than 3,300 km range and less than 6,500 or so. And then there’s another increment out to 11,500 km or so where they hold most of CONUS at risk (borderline at 8,000, fully credible by 11,500).

      They would not need a three stage missile for the 3,300 km range targets.

      Ergo, the KN-08 performance targets either are 6,500ish km or somewhere between 8 and 11,500 km.

      Is KN-08 real? It would be very expensive as a Masrikova exercise. Were the first parade examples prototypes or mockups? Almost surely. One, maybe two could have been early prototypes, but they all could have been non-flight-test units (and frankly, if I were NK, I’d build non-flight status parade units for everything, so my real missiles didn’t get bounced around on the roads just for Dear Leader’s PR shots…).

      I’m going to make a presumption now, that the intel leaks that KN-08 test firings happened are what the Intel Community actually believe, have info for, and are telling policymakers.

      Given that presumption, I will assert that the KN-08 is by now “real” in the flight test ready (or approximately ready) sense. It’s not flight demonstrated and debugged and can be expected to have reliability in the 5-25% range, at absolute worst (best) for planning purposes 50%.

      I would then have to presume at what the IC has on production rates, which I have no clue about at the moment.

      Looking at John Schilling’s four proposed models, even discounting the throw weight or range some, it’s clear that they can hold Alaska – and Geely and the NMD site – at risk. It’s possible that if their warheads are as small as credible – and I feel there’s some risk of that – they might be able to fire upon Washington DC (and many other continental US targets).

      My advice would be that at the moment, the real threat is low. With 30 GBI interceptors at Geely, a one-wave attack of 10 KN-08s against CONUS would be unlikely to “get through” – 1, 2, 3, maybe 5 of them will not produce a BFRC somewhere. We have enough GBI to do S2-L-S3 and down all those.

      The worst credible case would seem to be depressed trajectory shots against Geely itself, intending to knock out the GBI force (other than the Vandenberg units). There might not be enough visibility to do SLS; the odds of NK success here are pretty low, but non zero, and any inbound missile that crossed the US border (sea to Alaska) with a nuclear warhead on board (even if we shot it down before it detonated) is an escalation we would have a hard time avoiding.

      I do not expect that the combination of threat credibility and interceptor reliability poses a major threat to CONUS. But there’s a sliver of “threat becomes credible” here.

      And, who knows if they’re going to test some KN-08s and debug them to the 50, 75, 80, 90% reliability ranges…

    • Jme (History)

      BFRC took a while… 🙂

      Thank you gentlemen.

    • Magpie (History)

      “Magpie, why does it matter in the political scheme of things how safe folk on Guam feel? They’re not exactly a significant constituency.”

      Politically, nuthin’. But even a small population freaking out fills plenty of copy, and – what did they send? One of the THAAD units? – the cost of correcting the error in perception is cheap. It doesn’t take much for some news men to decide this here bit of US territory is under threat, and beat that to death with some locals adding the delicious flavour of fear and ignorance. The fewer people freaking out, the less recursive panic you need to deal with, which is a useful thing when NK is pretty much just dealing in attempted panic (IMO).

      Put it another way: if a Guam-directed Musudan gets past Aegis defence, and THAADs have anything at all to do, I will be absolutely gob-smacked.

      Re: moving Musudans – the damn things have TELs. Drive to launch location. Put fuel in. Launch. The fact that they’re being so damn obvious about it with trains (apparently it was discovered from imagery, if reports are to be believed) suggests it ‘aint much of a surprise move. Put it another way, if they didn’t already have a couple of Musudans-on-TELs squirreled away somewhere along the east coast, then they’d have to be dopes, and I don’t like assuming people are dopes. I can see them getting busted moving fuel – that’s the sort of stuff you want to store real careful like – but an empty Musudan on a TEL should be the sort of thing you could (and should!) pre-deploy pretty much any time. Otherwise, what’s the freaking point? Again, sounds like they’re trying real hard to get the maximum mileage out of the media, trying to get everyone in the South as jumpy as they can.

      Which is another thing: for an untested missile, I reckon the Musudan is about as reliable as it gets, given the likely ancestry. I reckon my dictator-alter-ego would be up to making a dozen or two on that basis, but surely not more than that.

      I don’t rate the KN-08 at all, though…

      (PS: the un-defection last week is one of the more interesting news stories to come out of this, I reckon. That was ballsy as hell).

  21. Jme (History)

    I guess that didn’t come out like I wanted… (and sorry about the hear, not here…) I didn’t mean to come across as ready to dig a bomb shelter 🙂

    I’m not worried as in an imminent nuclear attack, or even hostilities. I’m more interested in what’s made our response so much more robust this time.

    Has some sort of ‘epiphany’ hit US intelligence, like KN-08 or BM-25 are a lot more serious then we discuss publicly, or have some decoy ability, or is it something like the new OP Plan with the US using BMD as a new deterrent when confronting nuclear posturing?

    I agree there’s a lot of theater going on here, but even so our response seems so out of proportion to what we’ve done in the past, I’m just wondering what’s changed. We essentially did nothing militarily for the first two nuclear tests, nor the last missile launch, nor the sinking of the Cheonan, nor the shelling of the island, but this time we’re calling in the BMD clans?

    It’s not seriously just the third nuke test is the charm… is it? Aren’t we destabilizing the situation by responding so much, if we’ve always stuck to the, “this is just more of the same” line?

  22. krepon (History)

    Given the threats emanating from Pyongyang, missile launch preparations would ratchet tensions to a higher level. One option that I presume would be considered would be to destroy the missile prior to launch.

    Have the North Koreans actually asked for anything — Dennis Rodman aside — in return for de-escalating tensions? Is this pure paranoia? Help me out here.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think they would like us to stop threatening to kill Kim Jong Un for a start.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I am starting to realize that the collective “we” is completely unaware of the fact that this crisis and the one last April both exploded after the DPRK freaked out because the ROK threatened to kill Kim Jong Un if North Korea conducted another provocation like the Cheonan or Yeongpyeong Island.

    • John Schilling (History)

      There is an important difference between “I think they would like” and “have they asked?”, in that one of these offers some hope for communication.

      The sort of dialogue where North Korea issues threats and shooting off howitzers/torpedoes/missiles/A-bombs, and we try to deduce what they are trying to accomplish and what policies on our part will reduce the threat level, seems all too likely to fail in the long run, and if it is going to fail in the long run a lot of people are going t

    • John Schilling (History)

      OK, that should have read, “…to be wondering what is gained by postponing the inevitable”.

      So, yes, destroying the missiles before they are launched, is almost certainly being discussed in both Seoul and Washington.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      It is important to note that there is probably almost no chance of missing and having to admit to it — certainly not in the first news cycle. The interceptor will streak toward the target, explode, we’ll count it as a kill and either the missile or its debris will continue on a ballistic trajectory and splash in the water.

      Maybe a close read of the debris or the radar data will eventually demonstrate that the intercept was a miss, but absent a total failure — like the interceptor doesn’t leave the tube — the Navy will but a “KILL” up on the proverbial big board.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I believe SM3, THAAD, and GBI all use pure hit-to-kill “warheads”; even the nearest miss will have a completely different signature than a hit. It would pretty much take an outright lie to cover up an intercept failure, and one that could be revealed by anyone with a good view (radar, IR, and/or telemetry) of the interceptor at the moment of “impact”.

      A direct hit on an expended Musudan booster could be misread or falsely claimed as a hit on the separated warhead, and an endoatomspheric intercept by an SM2 could still give an ambiguous result from a proximity-fuzed warhead, but I don’t think it is safe for anyone to assume that the Army or Navy could automatically claim a hit.

      Destroying the missile on the pad, certainly effective but also certainly results in dead North Koreans, possibly dead North Korean civilians, and is inherently highly provocative.

      Destroying the missile in flight, is less provocative, but little better than a 50:50 proposition. And the failure is likely to be noticeable, thus embarrassing and likely to reduce confidence in American missile defenses. Of course, if it’s false confidence that’s being reduced, maybe we need that.

      Ignoring or offering only token response to a launch, if it is successful, means that North Korea gets to establish that the Musudan is a real threat with at least limited operationa capability. And dials up both the level of behavior that North Korea understands it can get away with without triggering a strong response, and the sort of provocation that North Korea understands it needs to provide if it does want a response.

      None of these are good options. I assume all of them are on the table, and I’d bet that inertial will result in the last one actually being “chosen”. So, cross fingers and hope the damn things explode shortly after launch.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I am not so sure that the “good look” is immediately available. Certainly with theater systems against short range missiles, we experience many claimed kills that upon close inspection appear to be nothing of the sort.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Sorry for the misplaced comment (below).

      John, That is an even-handed summary of the available options. For my part, I don’t think inertia is a good option, nor are sanctions alone likely to “work” on North Korea. Negotiations maybe would work, but some kind of significant military action to prevent further missile tests or nuclear weapons tests (or significant military punishment afterwards) seems indicated.

      In other words, some limited military action in the near future (that may or may not escalate to a larger war), versus suffering the longer term problems of advanced nuclear weapons and missiles in the hands of a country that uses blackmail as its modus operandi and that sells its military technology to anyone who will buy.

    • John Schilling (History)

      With Patriot, or at least Gulf War I era Patriot, there was a nice big explosive warhead that would detonate somewhere close to the target. As it is much easier to see the Patriot smoke trail and warhead fireball than the missile hard bodies, it was easy for people with moderately good optics to confirm that, yes, a Patriot flew out and blew up, then conclude that it must have blown up the target. The Army could legitimately fool itself with an optimistic interpretation of the available data, CNN would go along with it, and nobody was outright lying. Though the lack of recorded radar tracks was at least negligent on Army’s part.

      With any of the modern systems except SM2, that’s not going to happen. If there’s a hit, a kinetic kill at even IRBM velocities is going to result in a fireball, an immediate cessation of any telemetry coming from either missile, and a possibly conspicuous absence of either the KKV or the incoming warhead on their pre-impact trajectories. A miss, by comparison, means no fireball, continued telemetry (if there was any to begin with), and anyone who could track either the interceptor or the target prior to impact will see them both continuing on unchanged afterwards.

      I am moderately certain that both Army and Navy can track their own interceptors well enough to know, almost immediately and unambiguously, that they got a miss. If so, they’d have to outright lie to claim success. And it would be a dangerous lie (or guess, if they are so sloppy as to not know for certain), because it wouldn’t be impossibly hard for Russia, China, or even North Korea to release data exposing the lie.

  23. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I think both Krepon and John were talking about killing the missile before launch, while it is still on the ground. No need to wait for the missile to fly into the air and (perhaps embarrassingly) test our limited ABM capabilities.

    Presumably this would be done to prevent further North Korean tests of missile technology, so as to prevent further development of ICBMs that could reliably hit the U.S. or others.

    The worst I have heard against this type of proposal is that the North Koreans might bus in some school children to babysit the missile site. I am not sure that even the North Koreans are this crazy…

  24. Arrigo Triulzi (History)

    We interrupt your normal programming for a cyber special: what if we didn’t go physical?

    If you own the media you don’t need a crater, you need a win which you can advertise and, for a substantial extra bonus, hard to retaliate.

    I think we can safely assume that there is at least one DPRK agent in the South and, furthermore, that ROK workers like going out for a drink after work. So, let’s play a “watering hole” attack and have our agent play a “really cool game” (gambling perhaps?) in a pub well-loved by the Seoul electricity company staff. Get the guys interested, hand out promotional USB sticks, wait for virus to be installed (as inevitably happens) on the internal network at a power plant (special prize for big coal/oil/gas plant providing base load generation) by listening for a keepalive ping.

    Now wait for suitable max load and order the plant offline. This can be done either by issusing an emergency email to the plant manager or by hitting something suitably connected to the network. Great fun to be had all-around as the base load hole causes the frequency to go off and cascade failures (cf. Italian blackout of 2003).

    Note: scenario simplified somewhat but greatly enjoyed during war games by all concerned.

    Now, how do you retaliate while Kim brags about it? You claim a “technical failure”, pray nobody finds out, re-train staff uselessly about taking USB sticks from strangers, etc.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Arrigo writes:
      We interrupt your normal programming for a cyber special: what if we didn’t go physical?…

      It is probably – almost certainly – not in North Korea’s leaders best interests for them to raise the level of fear in South Koreas’ populace high enough again that they begin to feel that an invasion and forced reuinification is the only way for them to feel safe again.

      SK has twice the people, 100 times the economic strength, and a limited length fuse.