Donald Trump recently tweeted that North Korea will not finish development of a nuclear missile capable of reaching the United States, but how he would enforce such a red line is unclear. Options for military pre-emption of North Korean missile launches should not be discussed in a cavalier manner, nor without regional consultation.

By Mark Fitzpatrick and Michael Elleman

President-elect Donald Trump’s tweet ‘It won’t happen!’ in response to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s claim in his New Year’s address that his nation had ‘entered the final stage of preparation for a test launch of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)’ left much unsaid. Although heavily panned by critics as yet another unscripted threat, his ‘clear warning’ to North Korea found favour in Seoul.

How he would enforce that red line was left unstated. More sanctions and other forms of pressure that are already in the offing will surely be ramped up. Cyber attacks and other forms of sabotage might be employed to try to make the North’s strategic systems non-functional. Negotiations have in the past produced moratoriums on missile launches, although the latest agreement, on Leap Day, 2012, was so short-lived – just a few weeks passed before Kim (unsuccessfully) tested a space launch in violation of the deal – as to put a pallor on diplomatic gambits. Although it is certainly worth exploring again, Trump’s tone did not suggest that diplomacy was on his mind. Missile defence might help protect the US homeland, but relying on such defences would not prevent development and test launching of the system.

An intense military intervention to try to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme was probably not what Trump meant either. It is doubtful that foreign intelligence agencies know where North Korea’s estimated 20 or so nuclear weapons and stockpiles of plutonium and enriched uranium are stored. The contingency operations plan to seize and destroy nuclear-capable sites and weapons in the North that was reportedly discussed by US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and ROK Defense Minister Han Min-koo in November 2015 undoubtedly relies on several unknown variables.

Ten years ago Carter, as a civilian, famously advocated a more selective pre-emptive strike to destroy an ICBM on the launch pad if North Korea prepared to test one, after first issuing a warning. In his government capacity, Carter has declined to address that recommendation.

Discussions of pre-emption have become common, in both Seoul and Washington. Few analysts actually advocate an unprovoked attack, however, knowing that it would likely trigger war. North Korean leaders would surely see such an attack as the prelude to a military operation to topple the regime and lash out in response. The escalation that would likely ensue could easily see very high military and civilian casualties. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee in February 2016, the commander of American forces in Korea General Curtis Scaparrotti said: ‘Given the size of the forces and the weaponry involved, this would be more akin to the Korean War and World War II – very complex, probably high casualty’.

Some respected figures advocate pre-emption nonetheless, even under cloudy circumstances. Retired Army Gen. Walter Sharp, who commanded US Forces–Korea from 2008 to 2011, argued in November that if North Korea put an ICBM on the launch pad, and the US were unsure whether it carried a satellite or a nuclear warhead, the missile should be destroyed.

Pre-emption would be warranted if the US had credible, robust intelligence that North Korea were readying a missile for a nuclear attack. There must be a high bar for the intelligence that would trigger pre-emption, however, not just uncertainly about the launch. A pre-emptive attack without such credible and strong intelligence would needlessly provoke a devastating war. Unless war had already broken out, the strong odds are that any launch would only be a test, not an attack that would invite retaliation and the swift end of the Kim regime.

It is unclear whether the US and South Korean intelligence assets would be able to detect ICBM launch preparations in time. North Korea’s two missile launch sites at Tonghae and Sohae are under constant overhead surveillance, but the missile systems of concern, the three-stage KN-08 and two-stage KN-14, are road-mobile. Undoubtedly, the ROK intelligence agencies have an idea of how many of North Korea’s 724km of paved roads can accommodate the eight-axle transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) that carry the KN-08s, and what it would take to monitor all capable roads to ensure timely detection.

During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the US ‘Scud-hunting mission’ failed to detect the missiles that Saddam Hussein launched at Israel. In that case, however, Iraq’s total deployment area was in the order of 30,000 to 40,000 square km of off-road territory. This is roughly 5,000 times the on-road deployment areas available to North Korean ICBM TELs. Moreover, the Scud systems were small and could be pre-fuelled. By contrast, North Korea’s ICBMs have to be erected before fuelling, because of their weight and aluminium frames (which otherwise could bend). Taking into account the 30–60 minute fuelling times and test-instrumentation checkout, the pre-launch exposure times for a KN-08 or KN-14 test will be significantly greater than in the case of Iraq’s experienced Scud-launch crews. Moreover, North Korea’s adversaries only need to keep track of the eight TELs that North Korea possesses. For these reasons, pre-launch interdiction is far more plausible today in North Korea than it was during Operation Desert Storm, some 25 years ago.

Given the potential consequences, pre-emption options should not be discussed cavalierly and without further exploration of a deal to forestall ICBM testing. In any case, no pre-emption move should be made before consultation with and approval by South Korea, which would bear the brunt of the North Korean reprisal. Japan, which would also be drawn into the war, must also be consulted. Pre-consultation with Beijing would also be useful, both to send a warning to Pyongyang and to let the Chinese know the consequences of their not dissuading North Korea from its ICBM plans. The Chinese bear particular responsibility, in that the TELS are based on the eight chassis imported from the China Aerospace and Industry Corporation. If and when such consultations take place, we trust the communication will not take place via Twitter.

Mark Fitzpatrick is Executive Director of IISS–Americas. Michael Elleman is IISS Senior Fellow for Missile Defence.

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