Trump’s national security strategy is a farce

Roger Cohen writes: The Trump Administration has put out its new national security strategy. This is a farce. On any one issue, President Trump and his team have several contradictory positions. That’s what happens when your priority as president is to use foreign policy to throw red meat to your base while other cabinet members are scrambling to stop Armageddon.

“It’s impossible to know what the United States position is on any number of subjects,” a European ambassador told me last week. “We could go sleepwalking into a war.”

Let’s start with North Korea, whose small but growing nuclear arsenal is overseen by Kim Jong-un, a leader as volatile as Trump. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the Trump Administration’s policy toward North Korea is “really quite clear.” He said, “We’re ready to talk anytime North Korea would like to talk, and we’re ready to have the first meeting without precondition.”

That was Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. By Friday, at the United Nations, Tillerson was setting conditions.

North Korea must cease “threatening behavior” before talks can begin; it must “earn its way back to the table;” and pressure will “continue until denuclearization is achieved.”

Denuclearization is not going to happen in the real world. If that’s the condition, there will be no talks. As for Trump, he has said Tillerson is “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” He has warned that the United States is “locked and loaded.” He has never embraced talks without preconditions, favored by France, Britain and sometimes Tillerson.

Clear enough already?

Oh, I should add that Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, was not present when Tillerson spoke. Great optics there: Haley and Tillerson are known to be at loggerheads, with the secretary of state (regarded by some as a dead man walking) suspecting Haley wants to succeed him.

Now, effective pressure on North Korea has three components: China, China and China. Trump’s new national security strategy identifies China as “a strategic competitor.” It suggests the United States will get tough on Chinese “cheating or economic aggression.”

Great timing there: Trump is asking President Xi Jinping to cut off crude oil exports to North Korea as his “strategy” lambasts China. Our president believes everyone will do his bidding because he says so. Hello! You want a favor? You don’t double down on confrontation. [Continue reading…]


Hunger in North Korea is devastating. And it’s our fault

Kee B. Park writes: One cool morning last April in Pyongyang, North Korea, I watched a woman squat over a patch of grass along the Daedong River. A large handkerchief covering her head was knotted below her chin, encircling her sunburned and wrinkled face. As a van passed by blaring patriotic hymns from the oversize speakers on its roof, she weeded the riverbank. In North Korea, keeping the neighborhood clean is a civic duty. But she was far from any neighborhood. She was gathering the weeds for food.

On Nov. 13, a North Korean soldier in his 20s was shot multiple times as he ran across the demilitarized zone into South Korea. His surgeons reported finding dozens of parasitic intestinal worms inside his abdominal cavity, some as long as 11 inches, suggesting severe malnutrition.

As these stories show — and as I have seen during my 16 visits to North Korea in the past decade — hunger remains a way of life there. Forty-one percent of North Koreans, about 10.5 million people, are undernourished, and 28 percent of children under 5 years old have stunted growth. When my 4-year-old daughter visited Pyongyang in 2013, she, all of three feet, towered over children twice her age.

The hunger is devastating. And it’s our fault. [Continue reading…]


It’s official: North Korea is behind WannaCry

Thomas P. Bossert, Trump’s Homeland Security Advisor, writes: Cybersecurity isn’t easy, but simple principles still apply. Accountability is one, cooperation another. They are the cornerstones of security and resilience in any society. In furtherance of both, and after careful investigation, the U.S. today publicly attributes the massive “WannaCry” cyberattack to North Korea.

The attack spread indiscriminately across the world in May. It encrypted and rendered useless hundreds of thousands of computers in hospitals, schools, businesses and homes. While victims received ransom demands, paying did not unlock their computers. It was cowardly, costly and careless. The attack was widespread and cost billions, and North Korea is directly responsible.

We do not make this allegation lightly. It is based on evidence. We are not alone with our findings, either. Other governments and private companies agree. The United Kingdom attributes the attack to North Korea, and Microsoft traced the attack to cyber affiliates of the North Korean government. [Continue reading…]

Last May, Quinn Norton wrote: The story of WannaCry (also called Wcry and WannaCrypt) begins somewhere before 2013, in the hallways of the National Security Agency, but we can only be sure of a few details from that era. The NSA found or purchased the knowledge of a flaw of MicroSoft’s SMB V.1 code, an old bit of network software that lets people share files and resources, like printers. While SMB V.1 has long been superseded by better and safer software, it is still widely used by organizations that can’t, or simply don’t, install the newer software.

The flaw, or bug, is what what people call a vulnerability, but on its own it’s not particularly interesting. Based on this vulnerability, though, the NSA wrote another program—called an exploit—which let them take advantage of the flaw anywhere it existed. The program the NSA wrote was called ETERNALBLUE, and what they used it to do was remarkable.

The NSA gave themselves secret and powerful access to a European banking transaction system called SWIFT, and, in particular, SWIFT’s Middle Eastern transactions, as a subsequent data-dump by a mysterious hacker group demonstrated. Most people know SWIFT as a payment system, part of how they use credit cards and move money. But its anatomy, the guts of the thing, is a series of old Windows computers quietly humming along in offices around the world, constantly talking to each other across the internet in the languages computers only speak to computers.

The NSA used ETERNALBLUE to take over these machines. Security analysts, such as Matthieu Suiche, the founder of Comae Technologies, believe the NSA could see, and as far as we know, even change, the financial data that flowed through much of the Middle East—for years. Many people have speculated on why the NSA did this, speculation that has never been confirmed or denied. A spokesperson for the agency did not immediately reply to The Atlantic’s request for an interview.

But the knowledge of a flaw is simply knowledge. The NSA could not know if anyone else had found this vulnerability, or bought it. They couldn’t know if anyone else was using it, unless that someone else was caught using it. This is the nature of all computer flaws.

In 2013 a group the world would know later as The Shadow Brokers somehow obtained not only ETERNALBLUE, but a large collection of NSA programs and documents. The NSA and the United States government hasn’t indicated whether they know how this happened, or if they know who The Shadow Brokers are. The Shadow Brokers communicate publicly using a form of broken English so unlikely that many people assume they are native English speakers attempting to masquerade themselves as non-native—but that remains speculative. Wherever they are from, the trove they stole and eventually posted for all the world to see on the net contained powerful tools, and the knowledge of many flaws in software used around the world. WannaCry is the first known global crisis to come from these NSA tools. Almost without a doubt, it will not be the last.

A few months ago, someone told Microsoft about the vulnerabilities in the NSA tools before The Shadow Brokers released their documents. There is much speculation about who did this, but, as with so many parts of this story, it is still only that—speculation. Microsoft may or may not even know for sure who told them. Regardless, Microsoft got the chance to release a program that fixed the flaw in SMB V.1 before the flaw became public knowledge. But they couldn’t make anyone use their fix, because using any fix—better known as patching or updating—is always at the discretion of the user. They also didn’t release it for very old versions of Windows. Those old versions are so flawed that Microsoft has every reason to hope people stop using them—and not just because it allows the company to profit from new software purchases.

There is another wrinkle in this already convoluted landscape: Microsoft knew SMB V.1, which was decades old, wasn’t very good software. They’d been trying to abandon it for 10 years, and had replaced it with a stronger and more efficient version. But they couldn’t throw out SMB V.1 completely because so many people were using it. After WannaCry had started its run around the world, the head of SMB for Microsoft tweeted this as part of a long and frustrated thread:

The more new and outdated systems connect, the more chance there is to break everything with a single small change.

We live in an interconnected world, and in a strange twist of irony, that interconnectedness can make it difficult to change anything at all. This is why so many systems remain insecure for years: global banking systems, and Spanish telecoms, and German trains, and the National Health Service of the United Kingdom. [Continue reading…]


Lindsey Graham: There’s a 30 percent chance Trump attacks North Korea

The Atlantic reports: It’s become a grim ritual in Washington foreign-policy circles to assess the chances that the United States and North Korea stumble into war. But on Wednesday Lindsey Graham did something different: He estimated the odds that the Trump administration deliberately strikes North Korea first, to stop it from acquiring the capability to target the U.S. mainland with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile. And the senator’s numbers were remarkably high.

“I would say there’s a three in 10 chance we use the military option,” Graham predicted in an interview. If the North Koreans conduct an additional test of a nuclear bomb—their seventh—“I would say 70 percent.”

Graham said that the issue of North Korea came up during a round of golf he played with the president on Sunday. “It comes up all the time,” he said.

“War with North Korea is an all-out war against the regime,” he said. “There is no surgical strike option. Their [nuclear-weapons] program is too redundant, it’s too hardened, and you gotta assume the worst, not the best. So if you ever use the military option, it’s not to just neutralize their nuclear facilities—you gotta be willing to take the regime completely down.” [Continue reading…]


Trump allies say Tillerson has ‘not learned his lesson’ and cannot continue in job for long

The Washington Post reports: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed focused this week on rebooting his image as a beleaguered Cabinet member on the outs with his boss and his own employees — holding a rare town hall with employees, promising foreign trips into 2018 and saying he is “learning” to enjoy his job.

But then he went off script by offering another invitation for diplomatic talks with nuclear-armed North Korea, putting him at odds once again with President Trump and senior White House officials, who are increasingly exasperated with the secretary of state and say he cannot remain in his job for the long term.

The episode highlights the deep distrust between the White House and Tillerson and suggests how difficult it will be for the relationship to continue. While Trump and Tillerson have clashed on several policy issues — including negotiating with North Korea, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and planning to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — much of the distance between them seems personal and probably irreversible, White House officials said.

Tillerson, one White House official said, “had not learned his lesson from the last time,” when Trump publicly rebuked his top diplomat on Twitter over the wisdom of talking to North Korea. [Continue reading…]


U.S. ready for talks with North Korea ‘without preconditions’, Tillerson says

The Guardian reports: Rex Tillerson has said that the US is ready to begin exploratory talks with North Korea “without preconditions”, but only after a “period of quiet” without new nuclear or missile tests.

The secretary of state’s remarks appeared to mark a shift in state department policy, which had previously required Pyongyang to show it was “serious” about giving up its nuclear arsenal before contacts could start. And the language was a long way from repeated comments by Donald Trump that such contacts are a “waste of time”.

Tillerson also revealed that the US had been talking to China about what each country would do in the event of a conflict or regime collapse in North Korea, saying that the Trump administration had given Beijing assurances that US troops would pull back to the 38th parallel, which divides North and South Korea, and that the only US concern would be to secure the regime’s nuclear weapons.

Earlier this week it emerged that China is building a network of refugee camps along its 880-mile (1,416km) border with North Korea, in preparation for a potential exodus that could be unleashed by conflict or the collapse of Kim Jong-un’s regime. [Continue reading…]


UN envoy: North Korea would not commit to peace talks but ‘door ajar’

Reuters reports: United Nations political affairs chief Jeffrey Feltman said on Tuesday that senior North Korean officials did not offer any type of commitment to talks during his visit to Pyongyang last week, but he believes he left “the door ajar.”

Feltman, the highest-level U.N. official to visit North Korea since 2011, met with Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho and Vice Minister Pak Myong Guk during a four-day visit that he described as “the most important mission I have ever undertaken.”

“Time will tell what was the impact of our discussions, but I think we have left the door ajar and I fervently hope that the door to a negotiated solution will now be opened wide,” Feltman told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors on his visit.

“They need time to digest and consider how they will respond to our message,” he said, adding that he believed Ri would brief North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on their discussions. [Continue reading…]


North Korea is a nuclear state. But can the U.S. accept that?

The Washington Post reports: Every time North Korea does something provocative — which is often — Washington insists that Pyongyang must give up its nuclear weapons program.

Just last weekend, days after North Korea launched its most high-tech intercontinental ballistic missile yet, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that President Trump “is committed to the total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Not that this line is confined to the Trump administration. The Obama and Bush administrations before it also repeatedly insisted that North Korea must denuclearize.

That might have been a realistic aim before Pyongyang could build a hydrogen bomb and missiles that can reach the United States. It’s just a matter of time before the North Koreans can put the two together — if they can’t already.

The Trump administration won’t admit it, but North Korea is now a nuclear weapons power, analysts say. Why would Kim Jong Un’s cash-strapped regime spend so much time and money on building these weapons only to give them up? And even if they were prepared to bargain them away eventually, why would they do so now, when Trump and his top aides are threatening military action?

“We’ve seen no indication in recent years that they are interested in denuclearization,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale Law School who was an Asia adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “So it’s difficult to rationalize how we are still so fixated on it.”

Vipin Narang, a nuclear nonproliferation specialist at MIT, agreed.

“It’s a fantasy that they’re going to willingly give up their nuclear programs so long as Kim is in power. He saw the fate of Saddam and Gaddafi — why would he give up his nuclear weapons?” asked Narang, referring to the former leaders of Iraq and Libya, both of whom are now deposed and dead.

Trump’s willingness to pull out of the international nuclear deal with Iran would only heighten North Korea’s mistrust of a negotiated denuclearization agreement with the United States, he said. [Continue reading…]


North Korea’s new missile is a game-changer

Joe Cirincione writes: The Hwasong-15 ICBM tested by North Korea on Nov. 28 is a monster. Many compare it to the Titan II, deployed by the United States to carry our largest, multi-megaton hydrogen bombs to targets halfway around the globe. Missile expert Mike Elleman at the International Institute for Strategic Studies calls it “a significant improvement in North Korea’s ability to target the US.” Even applying conservative assumptions about the missile’s engines, “it now appears that the Hwasong-15 can deliver a 1,000-kg payload to any point on the US mainland,” he writes at 38 North. “North Korea has almost certainly developed a nuclear warhead that weighs less than 700 kg, if not one considerably lighter.”

The test was conducted at night, using a mobile missile launcher, “simulating the operation conditions North Korea would actually use in a wartime scenario,” notes Harvard scholar Mira Rapp-Hopper in Defense One. “In short, North Korea’s missiles are increasingly sophisticated, increasingly survivable, and functionally capable of putting the entire U.S. homeland at risk,” she concludes. But “from a strategic perspective, this latest test is not a game-changer.”

That might be true if you are just looking at its longer range and more powerful engines. The first North Korea ICBM test, on July 4, flew the equivalent of over 4,000 miles and put Hawaii and Alaska within range. The second, on July 28, could fly more than 6,000 miles, bringing the West Coast and Midwest within range. This latest test demonstrated the ability to fly more than 8,000 miles. Washington is less than 7,000 miles from Pyongyang. (Mar-a-Lago is about 7,500 miles away.) By these numbers, the Hwasong-15 represents an increased threat, but more symbolic and psychological than strategic.

It’s the front end of the missile that changes everything. [Continue reading…]


This is how nuclear war with North Korea would unfold

Jeffrey Lewis writes: No one wants to fight a nuclear war. Not in North Korea, not in South Korea and not in the United States. And yet leaders in all three countries know that such a war may yet come — if not by choice then by mistake. The world survived tense moments on the Korean Peninsula in 1969, 1994 and 2010. Each time, the parties walked to the edge of danger, peered into the abyss, then stepped back. But what if one of them stumbled, slipped over the edge and, grasping for life, dragged the others down into the darkness?

This is how that might happen, based on public statements, intelligence reports and blast-zone maps.

MARCH 2019: For years, North Korea had staged provocations — and South Korea had lived with them. The two had come close to war before: In 2010, a North Korean torpedo detonated just below a South Korean navy corvette, cutting the ship in two and sending 46 sailors to their deaths. Later that year, when North Korean artillery barraged a South Korean island and killed four more people, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak reportedly ordered aircraft to deliver a counter-strike deep inside North Korea, but the U.S. military held him back.

This time was different. No one thought President Moon Jae-in, a South Korean progressive known for his attempts to engage the North, would want blood. But nobody grasped how quickly accidental violence could take on its own urgent logic. [Continue reading…]


Pentagon evaluating U.S. West Coast missile ‘defense’ sites

Reuters reports: The U.S. agency tasked with protecting the country from missile attacks is scouting the West Coast for places to deploy new anti-missile defenses, two Congressmen said on Saturday, as North Korea’s missile tests raise concerns about how the United States would defend itself from an attack.

West Coast defenses would likely include Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missiles, similar to those deployed in South Korea to protect against a potential North Korean attack. [Continue reading…]

In July Reuters reported: A ground-based missile defense system, THAAD is designed to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

John Schilling, a contributor to 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea monitoring project, downplayed the idea that THAAD might be seen as a backup to hit a longer range ICBM, saying that THAAD was not designed to hit missiles traveling so fast.

“To engage an ICBM with THAAD would be like asking a high school baseball player to hit a fastball from a major-league pitcher – literally out of his league,” Schilling said. [Continue reading…]


Providing South Korea with its own capabilities of nuclear deterrence may instead increase the risk of nuclear war

Richard Sokolsky writes: South Korean hawks have marshalled several arguments to defend their view that the US should deploy nuclear weapons on their territory and even allow the South to become a nuclear weapons state. According to this perspective, the North Koreans are unlikely to accept denuclearization unless they face considerably more pressure, and a more robust US and South Korean nuclear presence would provide badly needed leverage to force the North to bargain away its own nuclear capabilities. In addition, US TNW in South Korea or a nuclear-armed South Korea would counterbalance North Korean nuclear weapons and thus deter the North from starting a nuclear war or trying to use its unilateral nuclear advantage to coerce political concessions from the South. Moreover, confronting China with the prospect of a nuclear South Korea (and Japan) and an increased risk of nuclear escalation might be enough to scare China into using its leverage to force North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

Although these arguments have gained some traction among the South Korean public, there are compelling reasons for the US to refuse redeployment of TNW in South Korea and reject its development of nuclear weapons. First, the existing US nuclear umbrella, especially sea-based weapons that roam the waters of the Western Pacific, and the presence of US forces in South Korea provide ample deterrent to the use of North Korean nuclear weapons. If these capabilities do not deter the North from starting a war, basing a few more weapons on South Korean soil will not change this calculus.

A US decision to redeploy TNW would also raise the thorny issue of operational decision-making and command authority over the use of these weapons. The South Korean government, like the governments of NATO countries where nuclear weapons are based, might prefer command arrangements with shared authority (in NATO, parlance “dual key” arrangements exist that require positive actions by both the US and basing countries to order nuclear release.) However, the commander of US Forces Korea would almost certainly want sole authority to employ these weapons. And because of the compressed time for decision-making due to the short distances involved, he might be given pre-delegated launch authority in certain conditions. Under these circumstances, and especially because both US and North Korean nuclear weapons would be highly vulnerable to a pre-emptive first strike, there would be strong incentives on both sides to use these weapons first or risk losing them. Thus, the re-introduction of US TNW in South Korea, while aimed at deterring a North Korean nuclear attack, could actually increase the risk of a nuclear exchange. [Continue reading…]


Trump’s calculus on the consequences of war with North Korea: The dead won’t be Americans

Gordon G. Chang writes: “I want your listeners to know that by the end of this week there’s gonna be some strong signals to China and North Korea that the military option is very viable,” Senator Lindsey Graham told Tony Perkins on his radio show Wednesday.

The South Carolina Republican, who in recent months has conveyed President Trump’s most chilling threats to the Kim regime, did not specify what he had in mind, but he did lay down a marker. As Graham told Perkins, “Now, nobody wants a war with North Korea, thousands, maybe millions, could get hurt or get killed but the president has to pick between our homeland security and regional stability and he has told me, he has told the Chinese, that he’s not going to live under the threat of a nuclear attack from North Korea and if he has to use military force he will and if there’s going to be a war it’s going to be in China’s backyard.”

Senator Graham did not specify what those “strong signals” would be. So what did he mean?

Perhaps he was thinking of oil.

At about the same time of the Graham interview, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., delivered her own threat to use force. “China must show leadership and follow through,” she said at an emergency session of the Security Council. “China can do this on its own, or we can take the oil situation into our own hands.”

In substance, Graham said the same thing, albeit with less stark words. During the Perkins interview, he revealed what he thought was the last stop before a military strike. “Here’s the only option that I can see that would possibly work, is if China basically cut off the energy that North Korea needs to survive or threaten to do so,” the senator told the president of the Family Research Council.

Will America attack the Friendship Pipeline running between China and North Korea or hit the North’s only operating refinery?

The Trump administration has—or is trying to give the impression that it has—run out of patience with sanctions. Since this spring, American leaders, officials, and diplomats have been persuading, cajoling, and forcing their counterparts around the world to cut off the flow of funds to the Kimist state. As a result of the “maximum pressure” campaign, countries are sending home North Korean workers, closing North Korean diplomatic missions, and shutting down North Korean businesses.

Recently, there have been signs of financial stress in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. There are reports, for instance, that some officials, members of the regime’s favored class, are not getting rations from their “special distribution channel.” Kim is now requiring an acceleration in “loyalty payments,” indicating cash flow problems. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking in public last week, talked about shortages of fuel. There are even rumors that North Korean police are rounding up homeless children and shipping them off to labor camps so they can turn out products for sale.

At the moment, Haley looks like she is laying the groundwork for more Security Council sanctions on North Korea, which would be the tenth set since 2006, but the reality is that the Trump administration does not need new rules to starve the Kim regime. The president’s September 21 executive order, by itself, can frustrate Pyongyang’s dangerous ambitions.

Executive Order 13810 basically says that anyone doing business with North Korea cannot do business with the United States, thereby forcing countries like China to choose between the two.

Beijing apparently does not think the Trump White House is serious about enforcement of 13810. From all indications, Chinese companies are still doing brisk business with the North. For example, two-way trade between the two states was up 3.7% in the first three calendar quarters of this year according to Beijing and appears to be continuing at more or less the same pace now. It is possible, therefore, that the American threats to use force—from Graham, Haley, and others—are merely an attempt to intimidate Chinese officials to end commercial ties with the Kim regime.

Whatever the case, the threats to strike the North must be feeding Pyongyang’s already heightened sense of paranoia and are definitely contributing to the mood of dread and helplessness in Seoul. At the same time, the war talk is creating an air of triumphalism in Washington.

In the American capital, most everyone assumes the United States can attack North Korea without major consequence to the homeland. “If there’s going to be a war to stop him, it will be over there,” Graham, referring to Kim Jong Un, told NBC’s Today show in August. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here.” President Trump, the senator said, “told me that to my face.” [Continue reading…]

Whatever else can be said about Donald Trump, he isn’t a creative thinker — he tends to do what has been done before, and therein lies the danger.

He’s seen predecessors use war as a tool to extricate themselves from political danger and he’s likely to believe that if he starts a war with North Korea he will be doing what presidents do: instigate mass slaughter in order to extend their own political lives.


With the successful Hwasong-15 test, North Korea’s final goal is in sight

Andrei Lankov writes: As long as the United States doesn’t use military force (at the cost of risking a major war), nothing can stop North Korean leaders from becoming the third country in the world, after Russia and China, capable of annihilating any American city.

Perhaps North Korean decision-makers hope that once they have the first strike capability in place, they will be in a position to start negotiating and, perhaps, negotiate a freeze under favorable conditions.

CNN recently cited a statement by an unnamed North Korean official who said: “Before we can engage in diplomacy with the Trump administration, we want to send a clear message that the DPRK has a reliable defensive and offensive capability to counter any aggression from the United States.”

These words are not surprising to the majority of North Korea watchers who have long known that this is exactly Pyongyang’s strategy or, at least, its plan A (there might be a plan B and a plan C, of course).

But it is remarkable that the intention to look for compromise after acquiring the first strike capability has been expressed in such explicit terms by a Pyongyang representative.

North Korea’s decision-makers believe that they have just a few more steps before they arrive at their strategic goal. Once there, they can begin negotiating and seriously reduce international pressure. They likely expect that if they agree to freeze launches and nuclear tests, many of the sanctions will be lifted. They are probably right. [Continue reading…]


How four recent launches signaled new leaps in North Korea’s missile capabilities

The Washington Post reports: It wasn’t a big surprise, but it was a big deal — so much so that North Korea issued commemorative stamps. Two successful missile launches in July almost certainly proved that the country had produced an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the United States. A Nov. 29 test that flew even higher and longer indicated that the entire U.S. mainland most likely was within range.

According to U.S. intelligence analysts, the country also has nuclear warheads small enough to fit on its missiles. On Sept. 2, the country tested its most powerful nuclear device yet, a blast seven times the size of the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima.

Nonproliferation experts had long assumed that the secretive country’s nuclear capability was further along than many people wanted to believe, but seeing the proof was still jarring.

North Korea has launched 20 missile tests in 2017, and 15 were successful, according to a database maintained by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. The tests represented giant leaps forward in technology. [Continue reading…]


The disappointing truth about U.S. plans to shoot down North Korean nuclear weapons

Tim Fernholz reports: At a Nov. 6 press conference with US President Donald Trump, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was asked if Japan would respond to North Korean missile launches by shooting them down.

“I could just take a piece of the Prime Minister’s answer,” Trump interjected, “He will shoot them out of the sky when he completes the purchase of lots of additional military equipment from the United States. He will easily shoot them out of the sky, just like we shot something out of the sky the other day in Saudi Arabia.”

But Trump was wrong: The US can’t easily shoot down missiles like the one North Korea tested yesterday, which are designed to launch nuclear weapons. The Saudi military did intercept a missile using a US-made Patriot missile defense system, but it was a medium-range missile moving at far slower speeds than a nuclear warhead launched by an inter-continental ballistic missile.

Stopping a nuclear ICBM is a much more difficult challenge, one that the US has struggled with since the Cold War, spending hundreds of billions of dollars to come up with a system of sensors and missiles called GMD, or Ground-based Midcourse Defense.

The premise is simple: Once the US detects a missile launch with a variety of radar systems, it will shoot its own interceptor into the sky. After the enemy nuclear warhead separates from its rocket booster, a defensive interceptor, or “kill vehicle,” separates from its own booster and attempts to crash into the warhead. Executing this maneuver during a roughly twenty minute window against a warhead moving faster than the speed of sound is extremely difficult in practice.

“The US missile interceptors based in Alaska and California are assessed to have a 25 percent chance of a head-on collision with the attacking missile, but most experts believe the true performance to be much lower,” Dr. Bruce Blair, a former nuclear launch control officer turned anti-proliferation activist, said in a statement.

“It is not a reliable defense under real-world conditions,” echoed experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists in an extensive report published last year. “By promoting [missile interception] as a solution to nuclear conflict, US officials complicate diplomatic efforts abroad, and perpetuate a false sense of security that could harm the US public.” [Continue reading…]


North Korea’s latest missile launch appears to put U.S. capital in range

The Washington Post reports: North Korea launched what appears to be another intercontinental ballistic missile, the Pentagon said Tuesday, with experts calculating that the U.S. capital is now technically within Kim Jong Un’s reach.

The launch, the first in more than two months, is a sign that the North Korean leader is pressing ahead with his nation’s stated goal of being able to strike the United States’ mainland and is not caving in to the Trump administration’s warnings. The missile logged a longer flight time than any of its predecessors.

“We will take care of it,” President Trump told reporters at the White House after the launch. He called it a “situation we will handle.”

Trump has repeatedly said that military options are on the table for dealing with North Korea, suggesting that time has run out for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear problem.

A growing chorus of voices in Washington is calling for serious consideration of military action against North Korea, although this is strongly opposed by South Korea, where the Seoul metropolitan region — home to 25 million people — is within the range of North Korean artillery.

And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that “diplomatic options remain viable and open, for now.” He added: “The United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearization and to ending belligerent actions by North Korea.”

The missile, which launched early Wednesday local time, traveled some 620 miles and reached a height of about 2,800 miles before landing off the coast of Japan and flew for a total of 54 minutes. This suggested that it had been fired almost straight up — on a lofted trajectory similar to North Korea’s two previous intercontinental ballistic missile tests.

The Pentagon said that the projectile did indeed appear to be an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM. The latest missile “went higher, frankly, than any previous shot they’ve taken,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said. He described the launch as part of an effort to build missiles “that can threaten everywhere in the world.”

If it had flown on a standard trajectory designed to maximize its reach, this missile would have a range of more than 8,100 miles, said David Wright, co-director of the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. [Continue reading…]

David Wright adds: We do not know how heavy a payload this missile carried, but given the increase in range it seems likely that it carried a very light mock warhead. If true, that means it would be incapable of carrying a nuclear warhead to this long distance, since such a warhead would be much heavier. [Continue reading…]


North Korea’s latest missile launch suggests weapons testing lull was seasonal, rather than strategic

The Washington Post reports: North Korea’s latest missile launch is its 20th in 2017 — and it seems to dash the idea that Pyongyang’s lull in weapons testing over the past two months indicated a willingness to negotiate.

There had been 74 days between Tuesday’s test and the last North Korean provocation, a missile launch on Sept. 15 that capped off a bout of activity over the summer months. Some hoped that this apparent lull might show that Washington’s hard-line policy on North Korea was working or that Pyongyang was open to a “freeze for freeze” policy like that advocated by China and Russia.

Instead, just before 3 a.m. local time, North Korea fired a missile to the east. The Japanese Defense Ministry said the missile appeared to have flown for about 50 minutes. This missile test may prove a theory put forward by analysts such as Shea Cotton, a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies: The lack of weapons tests from North Korea was not strategic — it was seasonal. [Continue reading…]