Defense experts divided on how to handle North Korea

A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., refuels during a mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, flying in the vicinity of Kyushu, Japan, the East China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula, Aug. 7, 2017.

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A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., refuels during a mission from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, flying in the vicinity of Kyushu, Japan, the East China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula, Aug. 7, 2017.

President Donald Trump has warned North Korea could face “fire and fury like the world has never seen” because of concerns the rogue nation may have the ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles at the United States, but experts are divided on how best to deal with potential threat.

Some argue additional economic sanctions and collective diplomatic pressure are needed to pressure the rogue state to give up its nuclear weapons arsenal which reports place between 30 to 60 nuclear bombs.

But how far North Korea has advanced its ability to fit a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile is a point of disagreement among defense analysts, said Lisa Collins, a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. D.C.

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NASIC eyes North Korea

While acknowledging North Korea’s missile capability as “a real threat” to the United States that “should not be taken lightly,” it has not demonstrated capability in two key areas, said Gary A. O’Connell, a former chief scientist at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

NASIC assesses the missile capabilities of North Korea, Russia, China and Iran and other countries and informs the nation’s highest-ranking leaders of its findings.

O’Connell noted North Korea has not shown it has a warhead that can survive the heat of re-entry through the Earth’s atmosphere nor demonstrated an ICBM has a guidance system that would hit a target area with accuracy.

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“They may feel they already have those problems solved, but until they can demonstrate it both to themselves and to the world they’ll always be a question as to whether or not it’s a viable weapon system for them,” he said.

The United States has invested in anti-missile technologies to counter the threat, he said.

In a wide ranging ballistic and cruise missile threat report released this summer, NASIC reported North Korea “has an ambitious ballistic missile development program” and has exported missile technology to Iran, Pakistan and others. The pace of North Korea ballistic missile test flights “increased dramatically in recent years,” NASIC determined.

Among other advancements, those developments included launching two satellites into space, the unveiling of a road-mobile ICBM, and a test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile with an unknown range that has not yet deployed, NASIC reported.

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Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Lexington Institute and a former nuclear strategy professor at Georgetown University, said there is “no chance” North Korea could strike the mainland United States with a long-range nuclear warhead because it lacks the technological capability, but that could change in a few years.

“The Pentagon can defend against a relatively small North Korean attack but the only real insurance we have to protect ourselves is to destroy the North Korea capability,” he said. “It is true that millions might die in a new North Korean war, but if the North continues acquiring nuclear capability, tens of millions of Americans could die.

“(President) Obama had a policy toward North Korea called strategic patience and it has failed spectacularly,” Thompson said. “It seems a new strategy is needed. The point is we’ve reached an impasse in our diplomacy and military action may be unavoidable.”

‘A new situation’

A military option “is actually high risk with not that much gain,” said Richard C. Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

North Korea might have nuclear capability, but that does not mean it would be used, he said. He urged containment as a better strategy.

“We will be in a new situation, but it’s the sort of situation that we’ve dealt with in the past,” Bush said. “One choice we don’t have is a military option because of the almost certain dire consequences for our ally South Korea and I think we will never have the intelligence needed to take out all of the program.”

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Along with economic sanctions and additional deterrence measures, he said a broader coalition is needed to stand against North Korea’s missile threat.

“Mostly, it’s sort of having China understand that North Korea with nuclear weapons is as much a threat to their security as it is to ours,” he said.

The United States and its allies still have diplomatic and economic tools to use, Collins said. Last week, the UN Security Council — including China and Russia — unanimously passed a resolution seeking to curb North Korea’s exports of iron, coal and seafood by a third.

“We know that sanctions are not a silver bullet,” she said. “I think they are only one tool that we can use in the tool box that we have to try and build leverage to encourage North Korea to come back to the negotiating table to ultimately come to a deal to get rid of their nuclear weapons program.”

Past sanctions haven’t been as effective as intended “and a big reason for this is China” not fully enforcing the measures, she said.

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Defense Secretary James Mattis issued a statement Wednesday warning North Korea “should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people” while Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pushed diplomatic attempts toward North Korea.

Some analysts said Trump’s fiery rhetoric was not helpful to handle the crisis. North Korea responded it could target U.S. military bases in Guam.

Bush, who said Trump’s comments did not appear to be part of a coordinated effort, called the president’s remark “scary” and raised concerns about how such a threat might be handled.

“This is one of the consequences of not having filled out the administration with people who know what they are doing,” Bush said. “You really rely on those people in a crisis.”

Tony Talbott, interim executive director of the University of Dayton Human Rights Center, said both sides were playing to domestic audiences.

But he also said Trump’s rhetoric played into the hands of the North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un to unite that country against the U.S. The real threat is a chance for an arms race and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction could increase the likelihood they may be used, Talbott said.

“You’re doing something you think is increasing your security but you end up undermining your own security and that seems to be what is happening here,” he said.

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Collins said Trump’s remarks help North Korea “maintain power and control within the regime” and may sow doubt and hurt alliances with South Korea and Japan.

“I think when there are threats like this and if South Korea and Japan take those threats very literally then that can create a lot of fear and concern within the alliance about the U.S. taking unilateral actions that might result in some very great damage to both Seoul and Tokyo,” she said.

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