North Korea ‘Bloody Nose’ Could Turn into Torrent

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

“We have to deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

Does President Trump understand those words?

They were spoken less than two months ago by former Defense Secretary William Perry, who twice conducted negotiations with the North Koreans nearly 20 years ago. A new report outlines the likely current state of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and together with Perry’s detailed advice, should help guide U.S. thinking on a response.

We are, hopefully, in a seven-week Winter Olympic pause, during which U.S.-South Korean military exercises and North Korean nuclear and missile testing are suspended. In addition, talks continue between North and South Korean officials on other issues, to lower tensions.

This should be a time when Trump, his national security team and the American public recognize that Kim Jong Un’s regime has become a formidable conventional, military power with a rudimentary, but growing, nuclear arsenal.

Pyongyang’s present and future military capabilities are clearly shown in a new study by Hans Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, released Jan. 2 on the website of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

“Based on available information, we cautiously estimate that North Korea might have produced sufficient fissile material to build 30 to 60 nuclear weapons, and that it might possibly have assembled 10 to 20 warheads,” they write. “It is possible that North Korea has operational nuclear warheads for shorter-range missiles such as the Nodong,” they say, referring to some 200 or more road-mobile, liquid-fueled ballistic missiles with a range of up to 900 miles and thus capable of hitting soft targets in South Korea and parts of Japan.

Those targets include tens of thousands of American service personnel and civilians.

“At the ranges required for intercontinental ballistic missiles, however, we have not yet seen evidence that North Korea can successfully deploy a re-entry vehicle to deliver an operational nuclear warhead,” Kristensen and Norris reported. But, “North Korea has made considerable progress toward deploying a re-entry vehicle that can deliver an operational nuclear warhead,” and “achieving that goal – and thus demonstrating the capability to operate a fully functioning nuclear arsenal – is presumably only a matter of time – perhaps a year or two.”

The Kristensen-Norris report echoes views of the U.S. intelligence community, which is not surprising considering they cite publications from sources including the U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC). The sources also include the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies database on the Nuclear Threat Initiative website, The Diplomat, 38 North, and the blog of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

In the 1990s, Perry believed the key to dealing with North Korea would be diplomatic negotiations backed by open preparation for military action against the North’s then-startup nuclear production facilities. Now that Pyongyang has shown that it has nuclear weapons, his view has changed.

“Sadly, I do not believe that any diplomacy will lead to North Korea giving up its nuclear arsenal,” he told the American Academy for Diplomacy in the Nov. 29 speech, as he accepted the group’s Walter and Leonore Annenberg Award for his contributions to American diplomacy.

That opportunity has passed, he said, and conditions now suggest an approach based on the question, “How do we best deter them?”

“We are down to that option today,” Perry said.

Agreeing with the U.S. intelligence community, he said he does not believe North Korea’s Kim would carry out a first strike against the U.S. or its allies “unprovoked.”

“The regime is not suicidal,” he said. “It is seeking to survive.”

But Perry worries that some people are proposing what recently has been described in leaks from the Trump White House as the “bloody nose” approach — a conventional attack on some North Korea facility associated with its nuclear or missile programs.

“The U.S. itself could create the condition that could blunder into a nuclear war, if we elect to make a conventional military strike against North Korea,” Perry warned, citing regular references by Trump and other officials to a military option being “on the table.”

“Such a strike would surely be followed by a North Korean conventional military strike against South Korea, which all too easily could escalate into use of nuclear weapons,” Perry said.

Instead, the U.S. should seek diplomacy “with lower expectations,” Perry said. While talks may not persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, overtures might pursue the “lesser but still important goal of lowering the likelihood of blundering into a nuclear war.”

Perry emphasized that the current situation calls for skilled, experienced and sophisticated diplomacy. He cited the danger if the two countries’ leaders, Trump and Kim, “continue to use inflammatory and threatening rhetoric they’ve employed the past few months.”

In the past 10 days, Trump’s words and tweets about immigrants have not only alienated people at home and abroad, but also expanded already serious doubts about his judgment and understanding of the problems he’s dealing with, nuclear weapons being one of them.

More attention needs to be paid to Trump’s Jan. 12 announcement that he’s prepared to walk away from the nuclear agreement with Iran if Congress within 120 days does not pass legislation that drops the pact’s sunset provisions, allows inspection of all Iran sites requested by international inspectors, and adds sanctions if Iran develops long-range missiles that he sees as part of its nuclear program.

Trump also wants the European partners in the agreement, including Russia, to adopt those provisions.

“If other nations fail to act during this time,” Trump threatened, “I will terminate our deal with Iran.”

As If Trump’s Iran threat were not enough to create a potentially new crisis on top of the North Korea tensions, the Trump administration’s draft Nuclear Posture Review, first reported on Jan. 11 by  HuffPost, apparently takes the U.S. in the opposite direction from those adversaries by increasing the American atomic arsenal.

The draft review calls for the U.S. to develop new low-yield warheads for sub-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles and shorter-range sub-launched cruise missiles. In addition, the report calls for maintaining the B-83 nuclear bomb “until a suitable replacement is identified,” rather than retiring it, as had been the plan previously. The bomb has a top yield of 1.2 megatons (equivalent to 1,200 tons of TNT), making it the most powerful nuclear weapon in the U.S. arsenal.

The Trump approach seems to be that others should not have nuclear weapons, but the U.S. should have more. What’s the sanity in that?

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