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Get ready for North Korea’s seventh nuclear test. Yes, the hermit dictator Kim Jong Un is back. On Thursday, he gave a speech marking the 69th anniversary of the “victory” over the U.S. in the Korean War. It was really an armistice, and North Korea got the short end of the stick, but whatever.
Kim declared his “nuclear war deterrence is also fully ready to mobilize.” Translation: Kim can probably order the first nuclear test since 2017 any time he wants.
The State Department warned in April that North Korea may be preparing for a nuclear weapons test. During President Trump’s denuclearization diplomacy in 2018, North Korea shut down some facilities at their Punggye-ri tunnel test site. Now, satellite photos – which North Korea obviously wants you to see – show a refurbished site ready for a test.
Kim is already upset about South Korea’s new government and the summer slate of U.S. military exercises with South Korea’s military so there won’t be any shortages of fake reasons for the test.
President Biden has no talent as commander in chief. However, Biden can’t afford to put North Korea on the back burner like Barack Obama did. Here’s why.
North Korea grew its nuclear arsenal during the Obama-Biden policy of “strategic patience” and tested its biggest 140 kiloton weapon in September 2017. The best guess is that North Korea could build about 40 nuclear weapons and may have 10-20 nuclear warheads for medium-range missiles.
Kim won’t stop with a nuclear test. He longs for a no-kidding long-range missile that can reach the continental United States.
Trump’s fiery diplomacy in the summer of 2017 caused Kim Jong Un to stop nuclear and long-range missile testing after November 2017. North Korea did no tests at all in 2018. Granted, after 2019, they fired off a lot of older shorter-range missiles, and you can read all about them at the terrific Missiles of North Korea site maintained by the CSIS Missile Defense Project.
However, the crucial long-range tests needed to mate nuclear weapons to missiles that guide, survive atmospheric re-entry, and reach U.S. territory just didn’t happen, thank heavens. Stopping tests left North Korea far short of an intercontinental capability.
The problem now is that Kim is not intimidated by Biden and that quite likely, it suits China just fine to see Kim Jong Un rile up the U.S.
Even worse, experts believe North Korea is aiming to develop a nuclear deterrence triad of missiles, aircraft and submarine-launched nuclear weapons.
What the heck? A nuclear triad is a horrible investment given that North Korea is poor and prone to famine. But it would seal off North Korea from outside threats.
Don’t forget North Korea is a client state of China. China is on a massive nuclear modernization drive of its own under Xi Jinping. China has opened new plutonium warhead production facilities that will help China double its arsenal. (Remember that when you think of the supply chain.)
Four years ago, the U.S. was confident it could take out a few “rogue” North Korean missiles if necessary. A key vulnerability is that most are liquid-fueled, requiring time to prepare for launch.
“Remember, missile infrastructure is not just the missiles,” then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva hinted at a roundtable with journalists in Washington in early 2018. “If you’re the poor sergeant that has to go out and launch the missile, and I blow up your barracks, you’re not available to go do your job.”
The U.S. also has ground-based missile interceptors in California and Alaska designed to hit and knock out a small number of North Korea missiles before they reach the U.S.
If North Korea develops advanced solid-fueled weapons and a larger arsenal, the problems for the U.S. and Asian allies increase. A bigger North Korean arsenal might one day overwhelm West Coast defenses.
Then the only answer would be more nuclear deterrence. Remember the U.S. kept tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1958 to 1991. Six F-35 fighter jets, which are capable of carrying tactical nuclear weapons, conducted 10 days of exercises in South Korea in July, perhaps as a reminder.
You can see why Trump tried his combo of threats, diplomacy and visions of successful real estate development to jumpstart nuclear talks. Waving riches in front of the young dictator to tempt him to rapprochement was worth a shot.
Unfortunately, Kim Jong Un and his backers in China appear all set for ratcheting up nuclear confrontation. For Team Biden, the clock is ticking.