- - Wednesday, January 18, 2017


Allowing North Korea to make consistent progress toward the fielding of a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching most American cities can be considered President Obama’s most serious failure in national security and non-proliferation.

Crucial to this failure was Mr. Obama’s refusal to confront effectively China’s role in North Korea’s ICBM program, a job now left to the incoming Trump administration. The imperative for doing so is clear: North Korea may soon test its ICBM, saying on Jan. 8 it could launch it “any time and anywhere.”

Mr. Obama had years to confront this threat. Pyongyang revealed a mock-up of its KN-08 or Hwasong-13 ICBM during a military parade in 2012. Six of these mock-ups however, were being carried by six very real and purpose-designed 16-wheel missile transporter-erector-launchers, made by the Sanjiang Special Vehicle Corp. of the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp.

In order to design this launcher, Chinese engineers would have required extensive knowledge of the liquid-fueled KN-08 missile, perhaps having even aiding its development. China had an untested liquid-fueled, road-mobile ICBM design to give the North Koreans — its DF-23 project from the early 1980s. China has also sold North Korea a new precision-guided rocket artillery system, and very likely, a new fourth-generation anti-aircraft missile called KN-06, so aiding North Korea’s ICBM would have been consistent.

Since 2012 the world has watched with growing alarm as North Korea has documented its progress in developing its nuclear warhead-armed ICBM. For its Oct. 10, 2015 parade North Korea revealed its KN-14, a redesigned and longer-range ICBM judged capable of reaching Washington D.C. Then in a series of 2016 disclosures, North Korea revealed a compact nuclear weapon design compatible with the KN-08 and KN-14, tests of ablative material to assist the re-entry of nuclear warheads and possible engine tests for its ICBM.

On Sept. 9, Pyongyang tested a 20- to 30-kiloton nuclear weapon, perhaps suitable for a warhead, and some estimate it could have 100 nuclear weapons by 2020. But it is China’s launchers, perhaps up to eight of them, according to Japanese reports, which will give North Korea’s ICBMs the mobility they need to conduct surprise nuclear strikes against the United States and then to evade U.S. counter-attack.

One is hard pressed to find indications the Obama administration tried to stop this threat. Just 23 days before the 2012 parade, Mr. Obama was in Seoul, South Korea, where he could have called on China to stop aiding North Korea’s nuclear missile capabilities — which were in clear violation of United Nations sanctions against North Korea. But he did not. Instead, a few days after the parade, an unnamed Obama administration offered an excuse, printed April 20, 2012 in The New York Times: “We think this is poor Chinese performance in sanctions implementation, and not willful proliferation.” What nonsense.

This gets even more troubling. In June 2012, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun, citing an anonymous Japanese “government” source, reported that on Aug. 1 2011, the “spy satellites of Japan, the United States and South Korea” observed a Cambodian ship transporting four of the Chinese missile launchers from Shanghai to the North Korean port of Nampo. But despite this early knowledge, the Asahi report stated, “On the urging of the United States, the three governments also decided not to publicize the shipment of the vehicles to avoid publicly embarrassing China.” Unbelievable.

To the contrary since 2012, China has not moved to correct any “mistake” and can be viewed as having affirmed the launcher transfer. China sent ruling Communist Party Politburo members to observe subsequent North Korean military parades featuring ICBMs and their Chinese launchers, on July 27, 2013 and Oct. 10, 2015. While it may not have transferred any more launchers to North Korea, in early 2016 China transferred practically the same 16-wheel missile launcher to Pakistan for its Shaheen-III nuclear missile, raising the prospect that Pakistan could become a new source of launchers for North Korea.

So now the new Trump administration must face the prospect in 2017 of multiple North Korean ICBM tests and then, by 2018 or 2019, the prospect of an operational North Korean ICBM that can reach most American cities. Perhaps Washington should start where the Obama administration refused to go, by listing China’s military assistance to North Korea and publicly demanding that China retrieve all of the missile launchers it transferred to North Korea in 2011.

This should be the opening phase of a new policy departure from the last 25 years of seeking China’s “cooperation” on North Korea, which has only given Beijing and Pyongyang time to turn the latter into a nuclear missile threat. Until Beijing actively seeks to disarm North Korea’s nuclear missiles, it should be told that it will not escape consequences for any North Korean nuclear strike.

Furthermore, the U.S. should accelerate its development and deployment of weapons intended to deter North Korean and Chinese aggression. This should include the accelerated deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile interceptors and the deployment of more capable interceptors. South Korea, Japan and the U.S. should also deploy new non-nuclear medium-range missiles as a deterrent.

In addition, Washington should rapidly redress the nuclear balance in Asia by redeploying tactical nuclear weapons on U.S. naval forces and to forward-deployed Asian bases, which were withdrawn in the early 1990s. These weapons are required to assure U.S. allies, and to deter both North Korean and Chinese aggression.

James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations. Richard D. Fisher Jr is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide