Nork nukes don‘t need missiles
It went up, up and away, and then it went bang. Friday’s North Korean satellite launch/missile test left Pyongyang’s rocket scientists with faces red, and I should not be surprised if several of these gentlemen soon find their laboratories relocated from Pyongyang to somewhere more rural ― like Yodok.
The rest of the world, meanwhile, had a chortle, and there seems to be much talk circulating about how we are all safe for at least a few more years from the threat of North Korean-raised mushroom clouds.
In the run-up to the launch, I understand why Washington breathed fire and brimstone, but quite why Tokyo and Seoul were so vitriolic is beyond me. Pacifistic Tokyo sounded almost hawkish, snarling that it would shoot the missile down if it skimmed Japanese air space; news photos showed Patriot batteries elevated skyward.
Forgive me for feeling a trifle cynical about this posturing.
Firstly, the North Koreans had made very clear that the missile flight path was through the Yellow Sea, which means that, had the modern samurai seriously wanted to shoot it down from home base, they would have had to shoot over the Korean peninsula. Secondly, the Japanese had made no response to Pyongyang’s first long-range missile test, and had been caught by surprise by the second. This raises questions about their early warning systems.
Seoul also huffed and puffed. Granted, politicians and diplomats have to do this, but while a successfully tested inter-continental missile would, indeed, give the North Koreans a toy the South Koreans do not possess, Pyongyang does not require one to threaten places below the DMZ: A whole suite of extant North Korean weapons systems already do that.
For example, should Kim Jong-un decide to press that red button marked ``sea of fire,” he has the world’s largest artillery force trained upon Seoul. Sources in the U.S. military insist that they possess the capabilities to take this out. This is something I am slightly skeptical of, given the historical inefficacy of counter-battery fire, the length of North Korean preparations, the depth of North Korean bunkers, and the U.S. military’s general over-reliance upon technology, but let us give them the benefit of the doubt: U.S. forces, together with their ROK allies, can annihilate Kim’s artillery belt.
Unfortunately, none of my sources can confirm how long it would take to do the job ― a complex mix of aerial bombardment and counter-battery fire from heavy artillery. In other words, North Korea will have hours ― probably days ― to pound Seoul’s apartment complexes, office blocks and infrastructure into a pile of smoking rubble before its last guns are silenced.
If that sounds grim, Seoul faces perils that are more formidable than a storm of steel.
North Korea, as we all know, possesses nuclear devices and radioactive materials. ``Aha!” you cry. ``But they have not compressed their fissile materials down to warhead size! And Friday proves that they don’t have a long-range missile! We’re safe!”
A rather large chasm gapes at the heart of this argument.
Yes, in Western armies and navies, most nuclear weapons are missile-delivered. But we are not talking about a Western force; North Korea does not require a missile to irradiate the megalopolis of its choice in either South Korea or Japan.
If Kim decides to brighten Seoul’s cityscape with a payload of instant sunshine, he can leave the job to his trusted special forces. These cunning chaps load a pile of fissile material into the back of a van, drive it through a bespoke tunnel under the demilitarized zone, trundle south for 40 minutes and park it in an alley near City Hall. Then…kaboom.
The hash of the Japanese imperialists is equally easily settled. Another pile of fissile material is stowed in a mini-submarine or even a disguised trawler. On a dark and moonless night, said vessel infiltrates Tokyo Bay. And if the bold comrades of the Korean People’s Navy Special Operations Command are in an ironic mood, they could sail two more of these cheeky little packages into the ports of Hiroshima and/or Nagasaki.
Still, there is some good news from Friday’s fizzler. Americans may breathe a sigh of relief that those dastardly Norks do not ― yet ― possess a delivery vehicle capable of reaching the American continent and doing what North Korean propaganda poster artists so love to depict: A hail of missiles raining down upon villainous Yankee heads
Things are less rosy this side of the Pacific.
The worrisome truth ― a truth that no South Korean or Japanese politician dares utter ― is that their nations are virtually defenseless against a determined North Korean attempt to atomize their cities. The kind of asymmetric threat that the North Korean People’s Army has crafted over the last six decades is not one that can be guarded against with any certainty.
And that threat has nothing to do with missiles.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. Reach him at email@example.com.