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What You Need to Know About "Missiles 'R' Us"

In our Feb. 22 Private Briefing "If This Stock Doubles, You Can Thank North Korea," we warned that Pyongyang was the next global powder keg to worry about.

It was a timely warning.

On Thursday, with the U.N. Security Council pushing for brawny sanctions against the militant state, North Korea threatened to launch a "pre-emptive" nuclear strike against the United States – and anyone else that's viewed as an "aggressor."

"Now that the U.S. is set to light a fuse for a nuclear war, (our) revolutionary armed forces… will exercise the right to a pre-emptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors," a North Korea foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

The rhetoric didn't end there, either. The North Korean spokesman also warned that a second Korean War was "unavoidable." The reason given: Pyongyang demanded that the United States and South Korea cancel a large-scale, two-month-long set of military maneuvers that are scheduled to start today (Monday), and those two allies have refused to comply. An annual U.S.-South Korea military exercise known as "Foal Eagle" is already underway.

The U.N. sanctions passed Thursday. And the rhetoric was continuing to escalate as we put this briefing together for you late Friday.

"Taken together, these sanctions will bite, and bite hard," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said. "They increase North Korea's isolation and raise the cost to North Korea's leaders of defying the international community."

Will those "costs" be high enough to be effective?

Pyongyang rhetoric has often included threats to strike "the heart" of the United States. In fact, a propaganda poster that's popular in that country shows a shredded American flag and an exploding Capitol Hill dome being struck by additional North Korean missiles.

North Korea (also known as the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea, or DPRK) recently conducted its third nuclear test, and used a long-range missile to put a satellite into orbit.

Seismic activity from North Korea's Feb. 12 nuclear test suggested a device of six to seven kilotons – an advance over the tests of 2006 and 2009, but only 40% of the strength of the 16-kiloton "Little Boy" bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

But a recent report by The Economist says that Pyongyang's claim that the blast came from a "smaller and lighter" bomb made a lot of folks around the world very nervous. The reason: It has analysts wondering if North Korea has developed a device small enough to put aboard the three-stage Unha-3 rocket it used to put a satellite into orbit in December (the satellite subsequently failed).

"Unha-3 can reach at least Guam now and most likely will be able to reach Alaska and Hawaii and the West Coast of the continental United States within the coming year or two," Patrick M. Cronin, senior director of the Asian-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Studies, wrote in a January Op-Ed essay for CNN. "Adding a workable nuclear warhead will take a bit longer, perhaps three or more years, based on available information."

And just one day before the February nuclear test, Pyongyang tested an engine for its modernized KN-08 long-range missile that would extend the rocket's range to 3,100 miles, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported. Both of North Korea's missile launch sites are also being upgraded, Seoul has claimed.

"If the North decides the test is successful, it is expected to operationally deploy the new long-range rocket," an anonymous South Korean government source told Yonhap.

Los Angeles is not quite 6,000 miles from Pyongyang, which would seem to indicate that the U.S. mainland is still out of North Korea's reach.

The latest media reports say that, despite its militant claims, North Korea's missiles lack the targeting and re-entry technologies that are part and parcel of any fully operational ICBM.

And while missile attacks from Pyongyang aren't a here-and-now kind of concern, that doesn't mean you should view North Korea as a back-burner kind of issue. Indeed, there are at least three reasons you need to follow DPRK-related developments very carefully.

Let's consider them now …

Is it wildfire season on the Korean Peninsula? In the Western U.S. states, folks know that when the "right" conditions are present, it only takes a single spark to ignite one heck of a fire. Many experts worry that a near-perfect mix of accelerants are in place for an accidental incident or some other small flashover to explode into something far worse. The two Koreas have a history of brinksmanship to begin with and North Korea's increasingly taunting rhetoric is risks sparking that already flinty rapport. The mobilized presence of the South Korean and U.S. militaries put potential participants right on the Korean gridiron.

Here's another concern: The fact that the leaders of both Koreas are new and inexperienced means the "risk of miscalculation and escalation" is at its highest level in years, Bruce Klingner, a Korea expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, told the Christian Science Monitor.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye – the country's first female president – was only sworn in two weeks ago. And because of what she's referred to as an "unprecedented" political deadline, Park hasn't been able to form a cabinet, meaning she's operating without the usual complement of advisors.

And North Korea's Kim Jong-Un is only in his late 20s, having succeeded his late father Kim Jong-Il as North Korea's supreme leader just over a year ago.

"Kim Jong-un lacks experience and may stumble across red lines that his predecessors would have known not to have crossed," Klingner said.

The UN Security Council is pushing a piece of string: Even China, long the biggest benefactor of the DPRK, is getting fed up with its neighbor and satellite.

The two countries have a difficult and complex relationship. As the Council on Foreign Relations explains in a new backgrounder, "China is North Korea's most important ally, biggest trading partner, and main source of food, arms, and fuel. China has helped sustain what is now Kim Jong-Un's regime, and has historically opposed harsh international economic sanctions."

There's an agenda, of course. The two countries share an 800-mile border, and Beijing knows that Pyongyang's control over its populace is all that keeps a flood of refugees from reprising the Great Escape as they flee North Korea for a "better life" in Mainland China. By supporting the regime, China hopes to avoid such an illegal immigration disaster.

(According to a Voice of America (VOA) report from last May, even China's state-run media admits this is a problem. In May, The China Daily said it was launching a five-month crackdown on illegal immigrants in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, a longtime destination for North Koreans looking to escape the persecution and famine of their homeland. Police in that northeast border region said the campaign would target foreigners who live and work there illegally, stating these people are "hidden troubles, and they might pose potential threats to social stability." That's just one example, but is illustrative of the concerns that Beijing has about its struggling neighbor.)

So Beijing believes it has a major interest in protecting North Korea.

But even its patience is wearing thin.

China had directed North Korea to shelve the February nuclear test, and was very angered when Pyongyang didn't do so. So now even Beijing is supporting sanctions against the DPRK.

But there's one problem: This new set of sanctions – the fourth set slapped on Pyongyang since its first nuclear test in 2006 – still aren't meaningful. They stop short of actually destabilizing North Korea's regime. And even though China agreed to the sanctions, many observers still question whether the Asian giant will enforce them.

Once you've factored all of this in, it's hard to see that the latest sanctions will have the desired impact.

"There is zero chance that this new resolution will have any effect on North Korean behavior," David Kang, an expert on North Korea at the University of Southern California, told the CSM. "Pressure does not work on North Korea."

Not surprisingly, global banks are loath to accept credit from the DPRK. So when North Korean dealmakers – chiefly diplomats – are trying to make something happen, they're known to travel with suitcases full of cash. The National Security Council resolution approved Thursday will make it a lot tougher for DPRK dealmakers to transport that cash.

The sanctions will also torpedo the sale of luxury items like expensive boats or high-performance cars to North Korea – depriving the ruling elite of the "toys" they seem to love.

Finally, the imposed sanctions are designed to increase the inspection of both exports and imports. They'll slow or even halt the secret dealmaking by DPRK banks that have been financing the country's missile and nuclear-weapons programs. And the sanctions will hopefully also block what one publication referred to as the "suspicious sea and air shipments" that are almost certainly sending weapons technology to other countries.

Indeed, that brings us to the last issue of the three.

It's time to deal with "Missiles "R" Us:"  It's bad enough that Pyongyang is using its weapons sales to finance a nuclear program that it claims its willing to use offensively, and pre-emptively. But those activities may be aiding other countries that are willing to do the same thing.

And it's finally time to take action, Graham T. Allison Jr., director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, wrote in a February New York Times Op-Ed essay.

"The most dangerous message North Korea sent … with its third nuclear weapon test is: nukes are for sale," Allison wrote. "As the former secretary of defense Robert M. Gates put it, history shows that the North Koreans will "sell anything they have to anybody who has the cash to buy it.' In intelligence circles, North Korea is known as "Missiles "R' Us," having sold and delivered missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan, among others."

It was North Korea, don't forget, that sold a nuclear reactor to Syria – which "by now would have produced enough plutonium for Syria's first nuclear bomb had it not been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike in 2007," Allison wrote.

That's chilling stuff. Especially when you consider how the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war have thrown that country into chaos. Imagine if Syria were a nuclear power …

As I said, chilling stuff.

And so is this.

Over the past 10 years or so – as we've been focused almost exclusively on Iran's drive to build its first nuclear bomb – Allison says security analysts believe North Korea has acquired enough plutonium to build between six and 10 bombs. And it's now probably producing enough highly enriched uranium for several more bombs every year.

Warns Allison: "If terrorists explode a single nuclear bomb in an American city in the near future, there is a serious possibility that the core of the weapon will have come from North Korea."

Are the odds of something like that occurring exceptionally high?

Probably not.

When I was growing up, my Dad used to tell me that "things never get as bad as you think they could."

But he also always counseled me to never take risky situations for granted, and to always be prepared. That advice certainly applies here.

The fact that Beijing is concerned enough about its erstwhile ally to back U.N. sanctions – as wimpy as those sanctions may be – underscores that this is a topic to watch. And if China fails to back the sanctions once they're in place, you can bet we'll be talking about this over and over again.

So put North Korea on your short-list of global issues to watch – along with the China Sea situation and the Cyber-hacking of America.

And we'll be here to keep you informed.

See you tomorrow.

[Editor's Note: In the Feb. 22 report, we told you about a stock that could benefit from the DPRK threat. It's already up 11%.]

  1. HAROLD H. | June 22, 2015

    Id still like to know why all this material is based on 2013? Will I ever see the year 2015 on here ?
    Or is the lead in on today's reports? Maybe to "top secret" to publish now aye Bill?

    • David Zeiler | June 22, 2015


      This article was in fact written two years ago. Bill follows these developments closely and provides frequent updates in his Private Briefing columns.

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