There’s a good news-bad news way to report the latest development in the U.S. government’s ongoing efforts to cope with the surging nuclear threat posed by North Korea. Too bad the bad news weighs much heavier on the scale.
On the one hand, it’s good news that Washington is finally acknowledging with deeds as well as words a danger that RealityChek has been highlighting for years: Kim Jong Un’s regime keeps making impressive strides towards building nuclear weapons capable of neutralizing America’s commitment to defend South Korea and Japan with its own nuclear weapons. The reasons? As I’ve noted, the North’s weapons are nearing the point at which they can hit U.S. territory. And just as frighteningly, Pyongyang is learning how to boost greatly the odds that at least some of these weapons will be able to survive an American strike to knock them out before they can be used – either before a military conflict begins on the Korean peninsula, or while one’s underway.
As a result, the North can be increasingly confident that Washington won’t use its own nuclear weapons to stop any invasion it mounts of the South, and therefore increasingly confident that its superior conventional forces (with or without nuclear help) would power it to victory.
And a special bonus for the United States: Because 28,000 U.S. troops remain in South Korea even though the Cold War has been over for nearly 30 years, a North Korea invasion could well confront an American president with this agonizing choice: Use the nukes, and risk losing one or more U.S. cities, or acquiesce in major American casualties. Those North Korean nuclear forces could take out America’s 49,000 soldiers and sailors in Japan, too.
As known by RealityChek regulars, in the most immediate sense, the United States is in this predicament to begin with because neither South Korea nor Japan has fielded powerful enough conventional militaries to defeat North Korea without American help. In large measure, Japan has skimped on defense because Washington doesn’t want it to become a major military power once again – for fear the Japanese will revert back to their aggressive early 20th century ways. But no such pressure has been exerted on Seoul. For decades, however, American leaders have decided that both a nuclear Japan and South Korea would be calamitous.
So what’s the good news? As reported in this Bloomberg piece, the United States will continue to develop a missile defense system aimed at protecting U.S. territory from the North’s nukes. Indeed, a new round of tests is “tentatively” scheduled for early next year.
But here’s the (really) bad news: Washington is nowhere near developing a missile defense system that can actually work. To be sure, Defense Department officials are expressing optimism that they’ve figured out how to fix the problems responsible for recent test failures. But even if this next test – and follow-ons – succeed, and even if their targets actually do approximate “real-world threats” (which they haven’t so far), defining success is awfully tricky given how much damage even one warhead striking the United States can do.
All of which means that, for the indefinite future, it will be American policy to keep the U.S. homeland exposed to a non-negligible threat of nuclear attack in order to protect countries more than wealthy enough to defend themselves. As I’ve acknowledged, there are some theoretically justifiable reasons for this strategy (e.g., both countries are vital trade partners, or a nuclear-armed Japan really would go berserk, or Washington is striking the right balance between deterring aggression and preserving peace in Asia and keeping Americans themselves safe). But it also remains clear that U.S. leaders refuse to acknowledge the real stakes – because they recognize that no benefits of protecting Asia can possibly exceed the harm of a nuclear warhead (or two, or three) exploding above U.S. territory, and that public opinion would explode in outrage if the truth were told.
We’ve still got some presidential debates – and a vice presidential face-off – coming up before Election Day. Is anyone confident that this issue will receive remotely as much attention as Alicia Machado?