Life under Kim Jong Un

Anna Fifield reports: When Kim Jong Un became the leader of North Korea almost six years ago, many North Koreans thought that their lives were going to improve. He offered the hope of generational change in the world’s longest-running communist dynasty. After all, he was so young. A millennial. Someone with experience of the outside world.

But the “Great Successor,” as he is called by the regime, has turned out to be every bit as brutal as his father and grandfather before him. Even as he has allowed greater economic freedom, he has tried to seal the country off more than ever, tightening security along the border with China and stepping up the punishments for those who dare to try to cross it. And at home, freedom of speech, and of thought, is still a mirage.

In six months of interviews in South Korea and Thailand, The Washington Post talked with more than 25 North Koreans from different walks of life who lived in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea and managed to escape from it. In barbecue restaurants, cramped apartments and hotel rooms, these refugees provided the fullest account to date of daily life inside North Korea and how it has changed, and how it hasn’t, since Kim took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, at the end of 2011. Many are from the northern parts of the country that border China — the part of North Korea where life is toughest, and where knowledge about the outside world just across the river is most widespread — and are from the relatively small segment of the population that is prepared to take the risks involved in trying to escape.

Some parts of their stories cannot be independently verified because of the secretive nature of the regime, and their names have been withheld to protect their family members still in North Korea. They were introduced to The Post by groups that help North Korean escapees, including No Chain for North Korea, Woorion and Liberty in North Korea.

But in talking about their personal experiences, including torture and the culture of surveillance, they recounted the hardships of daily life under Kim Jong Un’s regime. They paint a picture of a once-communist state that has all but broken down, its state-directed economy at a standstill. Today, North Koreans are making their own way, earning money in an entrepreneurial and often illegal fashion. There are only a few problems in North Korea these days that money can’t solve.

As life inside North Korea is changing, so too are people’s reasons for escaping.

Increasingly, North Koreans are not fleeing their totalitarian state because they are hungry, as they did during the 15 or so years following the outbreak of a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Now, they are leaving because they are disillusioned.

Market activity is exploding, and with that comes a flow of information, whether as chitchat from traders who cross into China or as soap operas loaded on USB sticks. And this leads many North Koreans to dream in a way they hadn’t before.

Some are leaving North Korea because they want their children to get a better education. Some are leaving because their dreams of success and riches in the North Korean system are being thwarted. And some are leaving because they want to be able to speak their minds. [Continue reading…]

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Images suggest North Korea ‘aggressive’ work on ballistic missile submarine

Reuters reports: Satellite images taken this month of a North Korean naval shipyard indicate Pyongyang is pursuing an “aggressive schedule” to build its first operational ballistic missile submarine, a U.S. institute reported on Thursday.

Washington-based 38 North, a North Korea monitoring project, cited images taken on Nov. 5 showing activity at North Korea’s Sinpo South Shipyard.

“The presence of what appear to be sections of a submarine’s pressure hull in the yards suggests construction of a new submarine, possibly the SINPO-C ballistic missile submarine – the follow-on to the current SINPO-class experimental ballistic missile submarine,” 38 North said in a report. [Continue reading…]

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North Korea ‘sentences Trump to death’ for insulting Kim Jong-un

The Guardian reports: North Korea’s state media has criticised Donald Trump for insulting leader Kim Jong-Un, saying the US president deserved the death penalty and calling him a coward for cancelling a visit to the inter-Korean border.

An editorial in the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun focused its anger on Trump’s visit to South Korea last week, during which he denounced the North’s “cruel dictatorship” in a speech to legislators in Seoul.

The visit was part of a marathon five-nation Asia tour by the US president aimed largely at galvanising regional opposition to the North’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

“The worst crime for which he can never be pardoned is that he dared [to] malignantly hurt the dignity of the supreme leadership,” the editorial said.

“He should know that he is just a hideous criminal sentenced to death by the Korean people,” it added. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s nuclear authority divides senators alarmed by his ‘volatile’ behavior

The Washington Post reports: Senators trying to prevent President Trump from launching an unprovoked nuclear attack were stymied Tuesday, after a panel of experts warned them against rewriting laws to restrain a commander in chief many worry is impulsive and unpredictable enough to start a devastating international crisis.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who has said Trump’s threats to global rivals could put the country “on the path to World War III,” began Tuesday’s session warning of the inherent danger in a system where the president has “sole authority” to give launch orders there are “no way to revoke.”

By the time Corker emerged from the hearing — the first to address the president’s nuclear authority in over four decades — he was at a loss for what to do next. “I do not see a legislative solution today,” Corker told reporters. “That doesn’t mean, over the course of the next several months, one might not develop, but I don’t see it today.”

Trump’s shifting posture on how to address nuclear threats has made lawmakers in both parties uneasy, particularly as the crisis over North Korea’s ambitions escalates. [Continue reading…]

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Divine intervention? Heavy fog prevents Trump visiting Korea’s DMZ

CNN reports: President Donald Trump attempted to make an unannounced visit to the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea on Wednesday morning, but was forced to turn back because of bad weather.

Trump was aboard Marine One en route to the DMZ but was grounded after about 18 minutes of flight.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was scheduled to join Trump at the DMZ in a show of unity, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Wednesday morning. The joint visit would have been the first for a US and South Korean President at the DMZ, Sanders said, calling it a “historic moment.” [Continue reading…]

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No war threats from Trump, who tells Koreans ‘it will all work out’

The New York Times reports: President Trump, whose long-distance threats and insults toward North Korea have stoked fears of a nuclear confrontation, brought a message of reassurance to South Korea on Tuesday, moving to bolster an anxious ally as he came within 35 miles of one of the world’s most dangerous borders.

Gone were the threats to rain “fire and fury” on North Korea and the derisive references to its leader, Kim Jong-un, as “Little Rocket Man” as Mr. Trump said he saw progress in diplomatic efforts to counter the threat from Pyongyang, adding, “Ultimately, it will all work out.”

After a day of private meetings and public bonding with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who was elected promising a shift toward dialogue with the North, Mr. Trump — who as recently as last month tweeted that direct talks were a “waste of time” — said on Tuesday that it would be in Pyongyang’s interest to “come to the table and to make a deal.”

And instead of threatening muscular pre-emptive action against the North, Mr. Trump said he prayed that using military force would not be necessary. [Continue reading…]

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Trump should help North Korea keep its nukes safe

Michael Auslin writes: Only a handful of nations have ever attempted to acquire a nuclear weapon—the ultimate status symbol—but once they did so, all took seriously the responsibility of managing their nuclear arsenals. Now, a new member is joining the club, one whose track record of recklessness, aggression, and inscrutability make terrifying the idea that it, too, will possess the ultimate weapon. Yet the real worry with North Korea becoming a nuclear power is one U.S. officials have so far ignored: Will Kim Jong Un respect the power of his nukes enough to make sure they are safe and safely controlled?

Despite official pronouncements that the U.S. will never accept a Pyongyang with nuclear weapons, the reality is that, short of a massive war that removes the Kim regime, North Korea appears unstoppably headed to becoming a nuclear-weapons-capable state. It may seem counterintuitive, but the U.S. needs to worry less about the risk of a North Korean nuclear war than about a nuclear accident. And as President Trump embarks on his trip through Asia, he would do well—as crazy as this sounds—to consider how the U.S. can help Kim keep his nukes safe. The best partner in this effort might well be China, the North’s only official ally and its major supporter. Regardless of the state of Sino-North Korean relations, which appear to be in a rough patch right now, Beijing remains the only actor close enough to Pyongyang to even try to instill some nuclear responsibility.

The Trump administration could reach out to the Chinese to encourage them to try to offer some friendly advice to Kim. Kim undoubtedly wants to keep the details of his program as secret as possible, but Chinese President Xi Jinping might offer some basic technical assistance on issues like launch authentication or setting up permissive action links. Helping train missile technicians in damage control and critical repair of launch systems might add another layer of certainty to the daily maintenance of nuclear weapons. And despite the distaste for accepting Pyongyang as a nuclear power, considering some U.S.-North Korean confidence-building mechanisms, perhaps even midwifed by Beijing, may come to be seen as a necessary evil in the new nuclear world. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon says to eradicate North Korea’s nuclear weapons would require ground war (in which millions would die)

Newsweek reports: A ground invasion by the U.S. military is the only way to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, according to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In late September, Rep. Ted Lieu and Rep. Ruben Gallego, both Democrats and veterans of the U.S. military, sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis highlighting their concerns about the prospect of war with North Korea. They requested a detailed report on the potential consequences of such a conflict.

“We’re just trying to get the administration to explain to the American people what a war in North Korea would look like,” Lieu said. “People need to understand if there is military conflict in North Korea we would be going to war against a nuclear power.”

Mattis issued his response via the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was sent to Lieu on October 27 and obtained by Newsweek. “The only way to ‘locate and destroy — with complete certainty — all components of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs’ is through a ground invasion,” said the response, written by Rear Adm. Mike Dumont.

This is the first time the U.S. military has made this assertion, according to Lieu, who’s concerned too many are under the false impression the U.S. could easily neutralize North Korea’s nuclear arsenal via a military strike such as the one Trump ordered against the Assad regime in Syria back in April. [Continue reading…]

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Trump foolishly said ‘samurai’ Japan should have shot down overflying North Korean missiles

Japan Times reports: U.S. President Donald Trump has said Japan should have shot down the North Korean missiles that flew over the country before landing in the Pacific Ocean earlier this year, diplomatic sources have said, despite the difficulties and potential ramifications of doing so.

The revelation came ahead of Trump’s arrival in Japan on Sunday at the start of his five-nation trip to Asia. Threats from North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development programs were set to be high on the agenda in his talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.

Trump questioned Japan’s decision not to shoot down the missiles when he met or spoke by phone with leaders from Southeast Asian countries over recent months to discuss how to respond to the threats from North Korea, the sources said.

The U.S. president said he could not understand why a country of samurai warriors did not shoot down the missiles, the sources said. [Continue reading…]

Joe Cirincione writes: The number one reason we don’t shoot down North Korea’s missiles is that we cannot.

Officials like to reassure their publics about our defense to these missiles. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told his nation after last week’s test, “We didn’t intercept it because no damage to Japanese territory was expected.”

That is half true. The missile did not pose a serious threat. It flew over the Japanese island of Hokkaido, landing 3700 km (2300 miles) from its launch point near North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang.

The key word here is “over.” Like way over. Like 770 kilometers (475 miles) over Japan at the apogee of its flight path. Neither Japan nor the United States could have intercepted the missile. None of the theater ballistic missile defense weapons in existence can reach that high. It is hundreds of kilometers too high for the Aegis interceptors deployed on Navy ships off Japan. Even higher for the THAAD systems in South Korea and Guam. Way too high for the Patriot systems in Japan, which engage largely within the atmosphere.

All of these are basically designed to hit a missile in the post-mid-course or terminal phase, when it is on its way down, coming more or less straight at the defending system. Patriot is meant to protect relatively small areas such as ports or air bases; THAAD defends a larger area; the advanced Aegis system theoretically could defend thousands of square kilometers.

But could we intercept before the missile climbed that high? There is almost no chance of hitting a North Korean missile on its way up unless an Aegis ship was deployed very close to the launch point, perhaps in North Korean waters. Even then, it would have to chase the missile, a race it is unlikely to win. In the only one or two minutes of warning time any system would have, the probability of a successful engagement drops close to zero. [Continue reading…]

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Trump team drawing up fresh plans to bolster U.S. nuclear arsenal and widen opportunities for its use

The Guardian reports: The Trump administration is working on a nuclear weapons policy that is intended to mark a decisive end to the era of post-cold war disarmament, by bolstering the US arsenal and loosening the conditions under which it would be used.

A draft of the new Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was presented in September at a White House meeting between Donald Trump and his top national security advisers. Congress and US allies have been briefed on the progress of the new draft.

The document is still being debated with a target for completion by the end of this year or the beginning of next. Among the new elements under consideration are a low yield ballistic missile intended primarily to deter Russia’s use of a small nuclear weapon in a war over the Baltic states; a sea-launched cruise missile; a change in language governing conditions in which the US would use nuclear weapons; and investments aimed at reducing the time it would take the US to prepare a nuclear test.

Trump has frequently voiced his intention to build up the US arsenal. According to one report, he was outraged at a meeting with military leaders in July when he was shown a downward sloping graph of the US weapons stockpile since the cold war, and had to be talked out of ordering a tenfold increase.

The White House denied the report but it has repeatedly made clear it aims to adopt a more aggressive nuclear stance.

“You can … be assured that our administration is committed to strengthen and modernise America’s nuclear deterrent,” Mike Pence, the vice-president, said on Friday on a morale-boosting visit to Minot air force base in North Dakota, home to Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and B-52 strategic bombers.

“History attests the surest path to peace is through American strength. There’s no greater element of American strength, there’s no greater force for peace in the world than the United States nuclear arsenal.”

Like much else about Trump’s presidency, the new policy is aimed at erasing the legacy of his predecessor. Barack Obama began his administration with a major speech in Prague in April 2009, committing the US to disarmament and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons globally.

A year after the speech, the US and Russia signed the New Start agreement, restricting both sides to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and bombs, down by about 30% from previously agreed limits.

However, the “Prague agenda” petered out. Aspirations to cut the strategic stockpile by another third, unilaterally if necessary, were abandoned in the face of congressional resistance, North Korea’s growing nuclear weapons programme and worsening relations with Russia. [Continue reading…]

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Mattis says threat of nuclear attack by North Korea accelerating

The Washington Post reports: U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Saturday the threat of nuclear missile attack by North Korea is accelerating.

In remarks in Seoul with South Korean Defense Minister Song Young-moo at his side, Mattis accused the North of illegal and unnecessary missile and nuclear programs — and vowed to defeat any attack.

Mattis said North Korea engages in “outlaw” behavior and that the U.S. will never accept a nuclear North.

He added that regardless of what the North might try, it is overmatched by the firepower and cohesiveness of the decades-old U.S.-South Korean alliance.

“North Korea has accelerated the threat that it poses to its neighbors and the world through its illegal and unnecessary missile and nuclear weapons programs,” he said, adding that U.S.-South Korean military and diplomatic collaboration thus has taken on “a new urgency.”

“I cannot imagine a condition under which the United States would accept North Korea as a nuclear power,” he said. [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear dangers from North Korea: Managing the risks to the U.S. and Russia

Joshua H. Pollack writes: Among the most disturbing aspects of the North Korean nuclear problem today is the lack of a common perspective between Washington and Moscow. More than any other government, Russian authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge the emergence of a genuine nuclear and missile threat from North Korea to the United States. This perceptual gap is more than a mere irritant. Without corrective actions, it poses a grave danger to the United States and Russia alike, one that goes well beyond a handful of North Korean nuclear bombs.

For their own reasons, the North Koreans are irked by Russian attitudes. Returning from a recent official visit to Pyongyang, Russian lawmaker Anton Morozov said that senior North Korean officials had shared some news with his delegation: They are preparing another flight-test of a missile capable of reaching the mainland United States. He said that the North Koreans had explained the capabilities of the missile in some detail, describing its range and reentry technology, as well as the technology to “control” the warhead, a possible reference to guidance systems. All three points have come into question at various times.

No reason for this unusual presentation was given, but there is a likely explanation. Russian leaders, including President Vladimir Putin, have so far insisted that North Korea’s pair of flight-tests in July 2017 did not demonstrate an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with the ability to reach North America. In taking this stance, the Russians have slighted the North Koreans and given them a desire to disabuse Moscow of the idea. [Continue reading…]

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Breakdown in North Korea talks sounds alarms on Capitol Hill

NBC News reports: Diplomatic efforts between the United States and North Korea are in peril with Pyongyang shunning talks in response to President Donald Trump’s increased public attacks on Kim Jong Un, according to multiple U.S. government and congressional officials.

Joseph Yun, a top American diplomat to North Korea, has been warning of the breakdown in meetings on Capitol Hill and seeking help to persuade the administration to prioritize diplomacy over the heated rhetoric that appears to be pushing the two nuclear powers closer toward conflict, sources familiar with the discussions told NBC News.

The warnings from Yun and Congressional officials come as the president prepares for his first official trip to Asia next month and as tensions between the two nations are near an all-time high. Officials throughout government worry that a lack of diplomacy increases the risks of military action in the region.

They also explain some of the alarmist comments that have been made by Republican and Democratic Senators in recent weeks, most notable Foreign Relations Committee chair Sen. Bob Corker who has said repeatedly that the president is undercutting diplomatic efforts. [Continue reading…]

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What should U.S. military commanders do if a president’s orders are legal but also crazy?

Scott D. Sagan writes: U.S. military officers are trained to follow orders from political authorities, unless they are clearly unconstitutional. The Constitution, however, says nothing about what to do if a president’s orders are legal but also crazy. This leads to bizarre situations, such as the response that Admiral Scott Swift, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, gave when he was asked at a seminar at the Australian National University in July if he would launch a nuclear strike against China “next week” if Trump ordered him to do so. The admiral should have said that the hypothetical scenario was ridiculous and left it at that. Instead, he answered, “Yes.”

Trump’s volatility has produced a hidden crisis in U.S. civil-military relations. In 1974, during the final days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, when Nixon had become morose and possibly unstable, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger told the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General George Brown, that if Nixon gave military orders, Brown should contact Schlesinger before carrying them out. Schlesinger’s action was extraconstitutional but nonetheless wise, given the extraordinary circumstances. The U.S. government faces similar dangers every day under Trump. Mattis and senior military leaders should be prepared to ignore belligerent tweets, push back against imprudent policies, and resist any orders that they believe reflect impetuous or irrational decision-making by the president. Their oath, after all, is not to an individual president; it is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” The Constitution’s 25th Amendment lays out procedures on how to relieve an impaired president of his responsibilities. If senior military leaders believe at any time that Trump is impaired, they have a duty to contact Mattis, who should then call for an emergency cabinet meeting to determine whether Trump is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” and thus whether to invoke the 25th Amendment.

One similarity with the Cuban missile crisis is that those Americans who think the United States should attack North Korea exaggerate the prospects that U.S. military action would succeed and underestimate the costs of a war. In 1962, the CIA and the military assumed that there were no nuclear weapons in Cuba and, on that basis, recommended air strikes and an invasion. But the intelligence assessment was wrong. Well over 60 nuclear warheads, gravity bombs, and tactical nuclear weapons had already arrived in Cuba, and one missile regiment was already operational by the time the Joint Chiefs were advising military action. Any attack on Cuba would almost certainly have led to nuclear strikes on the United States and against invading U.S. forces.

Today, U.S. intelligence finds itself once again in the dark. It does not know the status of North Korea’s warheads or the locations of its missiles. For example, when the North Koreans successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile in late July, it came as a complete surprise to the United States and demonstrated that North Korea can now build such missiles, store them, take them out of storage, and launch them, all before the United States could react. Yet U.S. military leaders have failed to pour cold water on the idea of a U.S. first strike. Instead, they have added fuel to the fire.

Consider the complaint expressed by General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Aspen Security Forum in July that “many people have talked about the military options with words such as ‘unimaginable.’” Dunford insisted that, to the contrary, “it is not unimaginable to have military options to respond to North Korean nuclear capability. What’s unimaginable to me is allowing a capability that would allow a nuclear weapon to land in Denver, Colorado…. And so my job will be to develop military options to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Dunford should have reinforced deterrence. Instead, he created a redline that Kim may have already crossed.

The military’s job is to come up with options. That involves thinking the unthinkable. But it is also military leaders’ responsibility to offer brutal honesty to political leaders and the public. When it comes to the current conflict with North Korea, that means admitting that there are no military options that do not risk starting the most destructive war since 1945. [Continue reading…]

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The Korean missile crisis

Scott D. Sagan writes: It is time for the U.S. government to admit that it has failed to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach the United States. North Korea no longer poses a nonproliferation problem; it poses a nuclear deterrence problem. The gravest danger now is that North Korea, South Korea, and the United States will stumble into a catastrophic war that none of them wants.

The world has traveled down this perilous path before. In 1950, the Truman administration contemplated a preventive strike to keep the Soviet Union from acquiring nuclear weapons but decided that the resulting conflict would resemble World War II in scope and that containment and deterrence were better options. In the 1960s, the Kennedy administration feared that Chinese leader Mao Zedong was mentally unstable and proposed a joint strike against the nascent Chinese nuclear program to the Soviets. (Moscow rejected the idea.) Ultimately, the United States learned to live with a nuclear Russia and a nuclear China. It can now learn to live with a nuclear North Korea.

Doing so will not be risk free, however. Accidents, misperceptions, and volatile leaders could all too easily cause disaster. The Cold War offers important lessons in how to reduce these risks by practicing containment and deterrence wisely. But officials in the Pentagon and the White House face a new and unprecedented challenge: they must deter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un while also preventing U.S. President Donald Trump from bumbling into war. U.S. military leaders should make plain to their political superiors and the American public that any U.S. first strike on North Korea would result in a devastating loss of American and South Korean lives. And civilian leaders must convince Kim that the United States will not attempt to overthrow his regime unless he begins a war. If the U.S. civilian and military leaderships perform these tasks well, the same approach that prevented nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War can deter Pyongyang until the day that communist North Korea, like the Soviet Union before it, collapses under its own weight.

The international relations scholar Robert Litwak has described the current standoff with North Korea as “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion,” and several pundits, politicians, and academics have repeated that analogy. But the current Korean missile crisis is even more dangerous than the Cuban one. For one thing, the Cuban missile crisis did not involve a new country becoming a nuclear power. In 1962, the Soviet Union was covertly stationing missiles and nuclear warheads in Cuba when U.S. intelligence discovered the operation. During the resulting crisis, Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro feared an imminent U.S. air strike and invasion and wrote to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev advocating a nuclear strike on the United States “to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be.” When Khrushchev received the message, he told a meeting of his senior leadership, “This is insane; Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him!” Luckily, the Soviet Union maintained control of its nuclear weapons, and Castro did not possess any of his own; his itchy fingers were not on the nuclear trigger.

Kim, in contrast, already presides over an arsenal that U.S. intelligence agencies believe contains as many as 60 nuclear warheads. Some uncertainty still exists about whether North Korea can successfully mount those weapons on a missile capable of hitting the continental United States, but history cautions against wishful thinking. The window of opportunity for a successful U.S. attack to stop the North Korean nuclear program has closed. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. preparing to put nuclear bombers back on 24-hour alert not seen since the Cold War

Defense One reports: The U.S. Air Force is preparing to put nuclear-armed bombers back on 24-hour ready alert, a status not seen since the Cold War ended in 1991.

That means the long-dormant concrete pads at the ends of this base’s 11,000-foot runway — dubbed the “Christmas tree” for their angular markings — could once again find several B-52s parked on them, laden with nuclear weapons and set to take off at a moment’s notice.

“This is yet one more step in ensuring that we’re prepared,” Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, said in an interview during his six-day tour of Barksdale and other U.S. Air Force bases that support the nuclear mission. “I look at it more as not planning for any specific event, but more for the reality of the global situation we find ourselves in and how we ensure we’re prepared going forward.”

Goldfein and other senior defense officials stressed that the alert order had not been given, but that preparations were under way in anticipation that it might come. That decision would be made by Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, or Gen. Lori Robinson, the head of U.S. Northern Command. STRATCOM is in charge of the military’s nuclear forces and NORTHCOM is in charge of defending North America.

Putting the B-52s back on alert is just one of many decisions facing the Air Force as the U.S. military responds to a changing geopolitical environment that includes North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear arsenal, President Trump’s confrontational approach to Pyongyang, and Russia’s increasingly potent and active armed forces. [Continue reading…]

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Deadly overconfidence: Trump thinks missile defenses work against North Korea, and that should scare you

Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang write: Could a president’s overconfidence in U.S. defensive systems lead to deadly miscalculation and nuclear armageddon? Yes. Yes, it could. Last Wednesday, referring to potential American responses to North Korea’s missile and nuclear program, President Donald Trump told Sean Hannity “We have missiles that can knock out a missile in the air 97 percent of the time, and if you send two of them it’s gonna get knocked out.” If Trump believes — or is being told — that American missile defenses are that accurate, not only is he factually wrong, he is also very dangerously wrong. This misperception could be enough to lead the United States into a costly war with devastating consequences.

Here’s why: If Trump believes U.S. missile defenses work this effectively, he might actually think a first strike attempt to disarm North Korea of its missile and nuclear forces would successfully spare U.S. cities from North Korean nuclear retaliation. They probably wouldn’t. Believing that each ground-based midcourse missile defense (GMD) interceptor can provide anything close to a 97 percent interception rate against retaliation raises the temptation to attempt a so-called “splendid first strike” based on the assumption that missile defenses can successfully intercept any leftover missiles North Korea could then fire at the United States.

In this article, we first lay out the complexity of American missile defenses and explain why it’s way off the mark to believe U.S. ground-based missile defense interceptors are even close to as effective as Trump suggested. We then explain how overconfidence in national missile defense may tempt the president to consider a first strike with no actual guarantee that it can spare an American city — or multiple cities — from potential North Korean thermonuclear retaliation. For a president who has already expressed an inclination to visit “fire and fury” on Kim Jong Un and threatened to “totally destroy” his country, we’re obligated to take Trump’s misplaced confidence in GMD very seriously. His attraction to attempting a first strike will only grow if he is blind to an important gap in U.S. defenses. Not only might he still want to denuclearize North Korea by force, he might think it is actually possible to do so without putting the U.S. homeland at risk. [Continue reading…]

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