Like Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un holds absolute power. And Kim, the same as his father and grandfather, wants to forcibly unify the Korean peninsula under a xenophobic ideology of self-sufficiency.
Since the end of the Korean War, the Kims’ wacky “Juche” ideology has sparked Western laughter as much as fear. We have rightly assumed the Kims are deterred by their understanding that a conventional-arms conflict with America would destroy them. While the U.S. has had to occasionally reinforce this conventional deterrence, it has been sustained for 60 years.
Over the weekend, Kim Jong-un announced that the North’s development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is advancing rapidly. Unless America appeases him, Kim warned, he will build a “preemptive striking capacity with a main emphasis on nuclear force.” Recently successful rocket tests suggest we should take Kim at his word.
Still, it’s not just North Korea the West should be concerned about here.
Today, alongside other malevolent activities, the Islamic Revolutionary Republic’s ballistic-missile research is advancing unabated. In his wisdom, President Obama decided to exclude a ban on such research from his legacy Iran deal. He lacked the threat-of-force credibility to compel the Iranians to cease their missile development. Unfortunately, when Iran perfects ballistic-missile technology, it will break the nuclear deal. By then, sanctions relief will have made Iran tens of billions of dollars richer.
Collectively, these developments threaten not just the stability of international peace, but the civilian population of the United States. They demand a robust response in U.S. nuclear-deterrent posture. President Trump should deliver it.
First, Trump should reform the Iran nuclear deal to include prohibitions on Iranian ballistic-missile development. This is the realist compromise between scrapping the nuclear deal entirely and attempting to make it work better.
Second, Trump should enforce a new, proactive strategy to deal with North Korea’s increasingly advanced ICBM program. Whereas, in the past, the U.S. has simply monitored North Korean missile tests, stronger action is now required. North Korean ICBMs demand it. After all, the base-minimum range of an ICBM is 3,400 miles. But seeing as 1960s-era Soviet and U.S. ICBMs easily exceeded 6,200-mile ranges, we must assume North Korean ICBMs will exceed the minimum range. And with just 125 miles more than the minimum, North Korea could strike Darwin, Australia. An extra 270 miles would put Anchorage, Alaska, in range. Hawaii, a little over 4,300 miles from North Korea, would also be vulnerable.
Countering this threat, Trump should supplement the U.S military’s multi-phase missile-defense programs. He should publicly announce that if the North tests an ICBM, he will establish three North Korea focused missile-test defense sectors. Trump should be clear that any North Korean ICBM that enters or passes these sectors will be shot down. U.S. military planners would, of course, fine-tune such proposals, but here’s one example of what the defense zones might look like.
Trump should aggressively confront illicit ICBM research and development networks.
Trump could establish a northern sector — focused on protecting Alaska — off the Japanese coast in the Sea of Okhotsk. Second, a western sector — focused on protecting Hawaii and the U.S. west coast — could be set up approximately 1,000 miles west of Midway Island, at the southern tip of the Emperor seamounts. Third, a southern sector — to protect Australia — could be established south of Palau Island between Papua and Papua New Guinea. These sectors should be maintained by U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers (and hopefully allied assets), equipped with the Aegis missile-defense system.
Next, Trump should clarify his willingness, where facing imminent nuclear attack, to use nuclear weapons in a “first strike” role. That demand is urgent because President Obama has equivocated on this fundamental precept of U.S. nuclear-deterrent posture. Namely, the understanding that U.S. nuclear weapons serve both deterrence (preventing an attack) and capability (destroying an enemy). A retained first-strike capability is necessary to prevent the loss of millions — or tens of millions . . . or hundreds of millions — of American lives in a nuclear showdown. Yes, ideally, the U.S. would be able to use conventional non-nuclear capabilities to achieve that objective. But idealism is a dangerous master. For one, U.S. military pilots might not be able to penetrate enemy air defenses in time to prevent a ballistic-missile attack. Similarly, conventional bunker-busting bombs might not destroy enemy nuclear platforms.Fourth, Trump should aggressively confront illicit ICBM research-and-development networks. Specifically, Trump should push Pakistan, Russia, and the former Soviet states to take action against smugglers in their nations. In the case of Pakistan and the former Soviet states, such action should be tied to U.S. aid payments. A philosophical evolution of U.S. tactics is equally important here. Put simply, instead of treating nuclear smuggling as a law-enforcement matter, the U.S. must be prepared to coerce or kill those who support the illicit nuclear industry. Fear is always the best guarantor against a nuclear holocaust.
Ultimately, the nuclear issue is just one challenge the incoming Trump administration faces in foreign policy. The U.S. needs a new strategy of realist resolution. After years of Obama’s fraying credibility with allies and foes alike, the United States must resume leading. Kim Jong-un and Iranian supreme leader Khamenei are arrogant. If given an inch, they will walk the nuclear mile. And history tells us that great power and totalitarian zealots rarely blend positively.