In October 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched its Sputnik satellite. By August 1958, 10 months later, it had successfully converted its space-launch vehicle (SLV) into the SS-6 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system. Because evolving an SLV into an ICBM is mainly a software issue these days, it seems likely that North Korea will have a functional ICBM by the end of next summer at the latest.
At the same time, Seoul is awash with rumors that the North Koreans may well be preparing for nuclear weapon tests very soon. This tracks with a prediction last summer in the highly respected Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Pyongyang may be considering a simultaneous test of a plutonium device and a highly enriched uranium device. The journal’s authors ended with this chilling message: “An additional nuclear test or two would greatly increase the likelihood that Pyongyang could fashion warheads to fit at least some of its missiles — a circumstance that would vastly increase the threat its nuclear program poses to the security of Northeast Asia.”
I would add, “Available to the highest bidder.”
As a consequence, stopping the North Korean nuclear-tipped ICBM program has to be at the top of the national security agenda of the United States, its allies and friends around the world. Time is running out.
The first order of business would have to be an acceleration of plans for a kinetic destruction program, if it came to that. Any production facilities, key weapons, military personnel, ships flying any flag with a history of smuggling North Korean weapons systems, and aircraft should automatically on the watch list. Any operatives we can reach at home or abroad — including non-North Korean citizens — we think may be facilitating North Korean weapons-of-mass destruction programs should be watched closely. President Obama’s “kill list” would get an immediate expansion.
Before we get to that point, we have to exhaust all other remedies. Diplomacy directly with North Korea is at an end for all intents and purposes. The United Nations likewise is a lost cause. Another U.N. Security Council resolution “warning” Pyongyang, watered down by Beijing, would be as successful as all the others.
There is something worth trying, however. In 1983, the Soviet air force shot down an unarmed South Korean airliner, killing 269 people, including a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress and a substantial number of children returning home to begin the school year. President Reagan immediately ordered American diplomats around the world who were meeting with Soviet counterparts, no matter what the subject under discussion, to get in their faces and carry a blunt message: “This is your fault, and there will be consequences.” This had never been done before, and it had an impact on the Soviet recipients, including one I personally witnessed in Geneva.
To attempt a variation on Beijing would require first a reversal of thinking in Washington on the true nature of the “Chinese-North Korean Arms Smuggling Axis,” which Brett M. Decker and I cover in our 2011 book, “Bowing to Beijing.” Briefly, the Beijing-North Korean military relationship goes back to well before the Korean War. It evolved in the 1980s into a partnership of extensive and lucrative smuggling of weapons of mass destruction to rogue nations around the world. Beijing goes to great efforts to keep this trade hidden. In the late 1980s it confined American diplomats to a small area around our consulate in Manchuria so we could not report on the missile trains crossing the Yalu River from China to North Korea. In 2004, a secret rocket-fuel train from China blew up in a North Korean train station, wiping out an elementary school. The BBC estimated that 3,000 people were killed, though that seems conservative. Reportedly, Syrian missile specialists accompanying the train also were killed.
More recently, in May 2011, U.N. personnel became exasperated that Beijing was blocking a U.N. report declaring that an unnamed third party was allowing Iranian advanced-weapons specialists to travel to North Korea. When they couldn’t get Chinese diplomats to budge, they threw the name of the third party, “China,” into the ears of the international wire services.
Just as Reagan did to the Soviets, the United States and its allies should say to Beijing, “This is your problem. You created it. You fix it. If you don’t, there will be consequences.”
William C. Triplett II is former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and co-author of “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, 2011).