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No easy options over North Korea

Peter JenningsAuthor: Peter Jennings

The Mother Of All Bombs (MOAB) dropped last Thursday on an Islamic State tunnel complex in Afghanistan is, on the face of it, a very Donald Trump kind of weapon. It’s big folks, HUGE in fact, with a blast yield of over 11 tons of TNT.

To give the weapon its official name, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb is also a ‘solution’ to a military problem that doesn’t really exist. The weapon is not a ‘bunker buster’ – the US has far smaller but more effective bombs that will dig through metres of concrete before exploding.

In fact the MOAB is designed to kill mass concentrations of people with blast and shock-wave effects by exploding near ground level. It was built before the 2003 Iraq invasion and intended to instil fear and desertions in the Iraqi military. The bomb has not been operationally used until now. Only a dozen or so have been built.

If the MOAB blast was intended to show American toughness to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader may be wondering what message really was meant to be conveyed, because that particular weapon would have no military value in trying to destroy underground nuclear weapons factories.

The MOAB is delivered by a slow-moving (and therefore vulnerable) Hercules transport aircraft – a parachute literally drags it out of the back of the plane – and it glides to its target. If the US really was contemplating striking North Korea’s missile and nuclear facilities, the Mother Of All Bombs will not play any role.

Of course Trump understands the look of the thing. The greatest value of the MOAB blast is that it makes him look like a decisive war leader. Flanked by slightly sheepish-looking senior military officers, the President declared ‘If you look at what’s happened over the last eight weeks and compare that really to what’s happened over the last eight years, you’ll see there’s a tremendous difference.’

Trump’s statement is partly true. Barack Obama’s last term had lots of strategic theorising but too few bombs to assert American power. In contrast Trump thus far has bombs aplenty but no discernible strategy to inform their use. Neither approach really helps to find a solution to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which is emerging as the biggest test of Trump’s early presidency.

The North Korean regime has been intent on developing a nuclear weapons capability since the early 1990s. It is estimated to have around 20 nuclear devices now and is adding around six weapons a year to its arsenal. 

The regime’s key task is to miniaturise a nuclear weapon, fit it in the nose cone of an intercontinental ballistic missile able to hit the United States and make the weapon accurate and reliable.

These are considerable technical challenges but it’s clear that the North is on an accelerated program to deliver a weaponised nuclear capability. Moreover Kim Jong-un is increasingly making this a public campaign. In March 2016 he was photographed standing next to what was claimed to be a miniaturised nuclear weapon able to be fitted on a missile. Western analysis found it to be a credible facsimile of a 20 kiloton device.

The North has also released images of tests to demonstrate credible heat shields for missile nose cones that must withstand the high temperatures of re-entering the atmosphere over their target.

On the missile front the rapid tempo of test launches shows the North already has a credible medium range missile able to hit targets in Japan, Guam and South Korea. The simultaneous launch of multiple missiles shows that Pyongyang is now not only testing missile reliability but also working out how they would control firing a volley of missiles.

Pyongyang has also recently launched two satellites, showing that they are well on the way to building missiles that can reach the speed necessary to travel intercontinental ranges.

In order to protect their weapons from a surprise US strike, the North is developing road-mobile missile launchers which are harder to target, using solid rather than liquid fuel for their rockets which makes them faster to prepare for launch and also working on submarine launched missiles.

Kim Jong-un clearly believes that a having a strong nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver the weapons is the best guarantee of personal and regime survival. Nothing the world has done in the last quarter century has jolted the North from striving for this goal.

Informed American thinking suggests that it could be up to four years before the North will have a weapon reliably able to target the US mainland. The tempo of weapons tests shows that Kim is trying hard to shorten that deadline.

American official thinking, as shown by recent statements from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is also hardening around the view that the North cannot be allowed to complete its nuclear weapons program.

The Kim regime wants to survive, but it is sufficiently brainwashed by its own unhinged propaganda that it may not accept a steady relationship of nuclear deterrence with the United States. Could any American President reliably trust Pyongyang not to nuke Los Angeles even at the price of being destroyed in a retaliatory strike?

The problem for Donald Trump is that none of his options for a pre-emptive strike against the North’s missile and nuclear facilities can prevent the North from responding with a catastrophic attack of its own against South Korea and possibly Japan.

In the mountains to the north of the demilitarised zone thousands of North Korean artillery tubes are within range of Seoul and would be able to hit the city with tens of thousands of high explosive shells within minutes of an attack order being given.

Moreover a US strike cannot guarantee that a number of intermediate range missiles would not be launched against Japanese cities. It’s possible that the North Koreans may have already been able to fit a nuclear weapon on one of these missiles.

Nor can we be certain that some of its existing nuclear bombs haven’t been pre-deployed in trucks or shipping containers in ways that will allow an unexpected nuclear detonation beyond the North’s borders.

What can the US and its allies do? After President Xi’s meeting with Trump at the Mar-a-lago resort in Florida, it’s likely that the US and China will make one last effort to apply tougher sanctions designed to squeeze the North and in particular hurt Kim and his leadership circle. That is only likely to make Kim accelerate the testing program.

Some excellent recent reporting in the New York Times by David Sanger and William Broad indicates that America has used cyber-attacks to make Korean missiles fail on launch. This will slow but not halt the North’s testing.

The next American step may be to shoot North Korean missiles down in the early boost-phase after launch. US warships on station in the Sea of Japan and other military assets have the capability to do this, although they cannot provide complete assurance that all missiles will be destroyed.

Trump’s showmanship and Kim Jong-un’s unpredictability make for a risky, knife edge, situation that is fast evolving on the Korean peninsula. Australia’s economic and strategic interests are deeply engaged. We should be playing a role of providing practical and balanced advice to Washington about options.

No one should imagine that war is unthinkable just because the result will be horrible. The US will not let Los Angeles or other cities become hostage to Kim Jong-un’s unstable threats. Sooner rather than later this means there will be a hard reckoning for the North’s nuclear program.

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Originally published: The Weekend Australian. 15 April 2017.