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How about that? After Chairman Kim Jong Un agreed with President Trump to "work toward denuclearization," and Trump's tweet expressing "confidence that Kim ... will honor the contract we signed ... to denuclearize," U.S. intelligence reports that Korea continues to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles and uranium enrichment. Darn those sneaky North Koreans.

But Trump exaggerated. Kim didn't promise to denuclearize, and he didn't promise to halt any particular nuclear weapons development. He promised instead to "work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula" and he has (for now) fulfilled this by dismantling a rocket engine test site, halting missile tests, and blowing up the bomb test site at Punggye-ri.

As I said in my Oct. 10, 2017, column, "The president's quest to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program is doomed to failure. Kim's weapons are all that prevent U.S. aggression" -- aggression such as our regime-change operations in Iraq, Libya, Syria and our threats against Iran. Other demonized enemies such as Russia have not been attacked because they are armed with nuclear weapons. This deterrent effect is what North Korea's nukes are all about.

Kim isn't crazy. Given his desire to continue his dictatorial rule over North Korea, he behaves quite rationally. He knows he needs nuclear deterrence, but also that he must not use nukes against the U.S. except as a retaliatory measure because the U.S. counter-attack would destroy him and his nation. Kim's concern arises from America's appetite for attacking non-nuclear nations it doesn't like.

Can North Korea hit the American homeland with nuclear weapons? They have already demonstrated an H-bomb capability. One H-bomb, typically 20 times the explosive energy of the Hiroshima bomb, is sufficient to level the entire center of, say, San Francisco.

Such a bomb could be delivered by submarine, airplane or intercontinental ballistic missile. The ICBM is most plausible, and in fact North Korea test-launched such a missile, the Hwasang-15, in November 2017. According to David Wright, a missile expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists who happens to be a longtime friend, the ICBM tested by North Korea last November had sufficient launch power to reach the entire United States.

Another expert, Michael Elleman at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, estimates the missile could carry a 1,000-kilogram payload 13,000 kilometers, implying it could carry an H-bomb to any U.S. city. The missile's blunt wide nosecone indicates it is not designed for high accuracy as would be needed to attack strategic military targets in a first strike, but would instead have the low accuracy expected for a missile designed to destroy a large city in a retaliatory strike. The advantage of the broad, blunt nosecone is that it protects the payload by not heating up excessively during re-entry. It might be large enough to carry multiple warheads, or several empty warheads as decoys to confuse U.S. missile defenses.

All this is consistent with Kim's need to deter the U.S. There is zero chance that he will launch an ICBM toward America in an unprovoked first strike, because he knows our certain retaliation would destroy his rule and his nation. Everything about North Korea's nuclear posture points to a purely deterrent, defensive, nuclear strategy: first, those blunt nosecones; second, North Korea's development of truck-mobile missiles which are technically difficult to deploy but useful if you want to ride out an enemy's first strike and then retaliate; and third, the huge asymmetry between Kim's arsenal of at most 100 nuclear warheads versus our 6,800 warheads on a wide variety of delivery platforms.

North Korea will not, cannot, give up its nuclear weapons so long as we maintain our regime-change policy toward nations that displease us. As I've said before in these pages, the U.S. should forget regime change, which has proven disastrous in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and will be even more foolish if pursued in Iran. We should instead adopt a more helpful and less militarized policy toward other nations, especially those with whom we disagree.

Despite our efforts to prevent it, North Korea has become a full-fledged member of the nuclear weapons gang. It's an unwelcome but real fact of life. Rather than trying to threaten or sanction this nation that has the audacity to displease us, we should recognize the reality of North Korean nuclear weapons and work toward the nuclear disarmament of all nations, beginning with a reduction in the massive overkill capacity of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

Commentary on 09/11/2018

Print Headline: Are Kim's missiles a threat to U.S.?

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