Blubbering before a national audience, North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un apologized to his people for not being able to raise their living standards. He then effusively thanked the loyalists in his party for having the “patriotic spirit” to stand with him and his regime as the military rolled out its new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Thus, the moment many Korea watchers have long feared has arrived: North Korea possesses a nuclear capability that can threaten the United States.
There is no going back.
The existence of North Korea’s ICBM and Mr. Kim’s emotional outburst should unsettle audiences everywhere. That kind of destructive power tethered to an unstable ruler is a bad recipe. Instead, some Western scholars are oddly heartened by North Korea’s nuclear development. After all, denuclearization was a barrier to better U.S.-North Korean relations. These scholars believe that by abandoning denuclearization, more constructive, stable diplomacy can be created between the United States and North Korea. In 2017, President Trump reached the same conclusion, when he ostensibly abandoned the American demand for North Korean denuclearization in order to start a meaningful dialog with Mr. Kim.
This is a dangerous assumption, though.
Now that Pyongyang definitely possesses ICBMs capable of hitting the United States, no American can rest easy. For the Kim regime is not your typical government. It is, in the unforgettable formulation of Luke Harding, a “mafia state.” Such a state might be bribed into submission for a time. But a mafia state’s lust for blind power and bottomless greed make it impossible to create a stable diplomatic dynamic.
Each time the United States engages with North Korea in anything other than saber-rattling, Pyongyang uses that reprieve to enhance its nuclear weapons arsenal. Other foreign policy experts believe that if North Korea cannot be trusted with nukes (it can’t), and if there can’t be a constructive diplomacy between North Korea and the rest of the world, then American military force — another Korean War — is the only answer. These analysts are wrong, too.
With the creation of the U.S. Space Force, America finally has the infrastructure necessary to surge development of space-based missile defense. The U.S. military doesn’t have to invade North Korea to remove its nuclear threat. Deploying a reliable space-based missile defense system would render whatever advantages Mr. Kim believes he possesses with his newfangled nuclear weapons arsenal obsolete. The goal of creating this new space-based defense system would be simply to defend the United States and its allies from the North Korean nuclear threat — without ever placing U.S. troops in harm’s way.
Mr. Trump should immediately take to the airwaves (and Twitter) and call for a new Manhattan Project, this time for space-based missile defense. Former President Reagan attempted a similar endeavor during the Cold War with his Strategic Defense Initiative (aka “Star Wars”). He was ridiculed and stymied from within the bureaucracy. To be fair, also, it is likely the technology was not yet mature enough to yield the kind of results that were needed to defend the United States against the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Today, however, America possesses the means and the immediate need for this system. It also possesses a Space Force capable of leading the development of such an important defensive system. Thankfully, North Korea is not nearly as significant of a nuclear weapons state as the old U.S.S.R. was — meaning that even a rudimentary space-based missile defense system could likely deter North Korea from nuclear brinkmanship. Besides, it took a mere seven years and a paltry $28 billion (in today’s dollars) for the United States to develop the first rudimentary nuclear weapons under the Manhattan Project. It would not be that hard for the Space Force to achieve a similar result with space-based missile defense today.
North Korea cannot be trusted to act responsibly with nuclear weapons under any circumstance. Nothing and no one can change the fundamentals of the U.S.-North Korea relationship. The Kim regime’s legitimacy rests, in large part, on its commitment to reuniting the Korean peninsula under its rule. That will not change — especially with nuclear weapons being available to Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, North Korea continues to be China’s cat’s-paw against the West — thereby rendering moot any meaningful diplomacy with America. In fact, North Korean nukes will likely compel the Kim regime to attempt to forcibly reunite the Korean peninsula in an emotional outburst, sooner rather than later. The only way out of this quandary, then, is for Washington to push through a reliable space-based weapons defense system before Pyongyang starts launching its nukes at us or our allies.
Without space-based missile defense, the United States will be attacked with nuclear weapons. It is the moral and constitutional requirement of any American president to protect the country from attack. Space-based missile defense defends the United States while furthering its own capabilities in space. Mr. Trump now must make this a national priority.
• Brandon J. Weichert is the author of “Winning Space: How America Remains a Superpower” (Republic Book Publishers) and can be reached via Twitter @WeTheBrandon.