Disarming Nuclear North Korea


Contrary to the prevailing view in the press, academia, and among Democrats and establishment Republicans, President Trump and National Security Advisor, Lt. General McMaster are right that there are many realistic military options for disarming North Korea's nuclear threat.  What might some of these options look like?

Order of Battle

Below is North Korea's Order of Battle-those assets that pose, or may pose, a nuclear threat to the United States and U.S. allies-arrayed in order of priority for destruction:

1) Satellites (KMS-3, KMS-4)               2
2) ICBMs (KN-08, KN-14, Other)       12
3) Yongbyon Nuclear Complex            1
4) SLBMs (Simpo-1, 12 building)       13
5) Bombers (mostly non-nuclear)       60
6) IRBMs (Musudan)                       30-50
7) MRBMs (mostly non-nuclear)   300-450
8) SRBMs (mostly non-nuclear)    600-800

The U.S. intelligence community reportedly now estimates North Korea has 60 nuclear weapons, including atomic (A-Bomb) and thermonuclear (H-Bomb) missile warheads.  North Korea's ICBMs and IRBMs are probably mostly or all nuclear-armed, as these are their costliest, longest-range, and most strategically important missiles, which would be largely useless without nuclear warheads.  The remainder of North Korea's nuclear weapons are probably scattered among their MRBMs, SRBMs, and bombers.

Elsewhere I have argued the U.S. intelligence community is probably underestimating the number of North Korean nuclear weapons.  North Korea probably has covert facilities hidden among its many underground tunnels for making nuclear weapons, not just the overt Yongbyon Nuclear Complex.  (See "Underestimating the North Korean Nuclear Threat" Secure Freedom Quarterly, 2nd Quarter 2016.)

The North Korean Order of Battle, with about 40-60 ICBMs and IRBMs, suggests North Korea would want more than 60 nuclear weapons to better arm its MRBMs, SRBMs, and bombers for tactical nuclear strikes.  A conservative military planner would want a better balance between strategic and tactical nuclear capabilities.

If only out of an abundance of caution, we should assume that North Korea probably has 100-120 nuclear weapons evenly divided between strategic and tactical delivery systems.


The objective of the proposed hypothetical campaign is to destroy those North Korean assets posing the greatest nuclear threat to the United States as quickly as possible-using conventional surgical strikes.  Limited surgical strikes should reduce the likelihood of North Korean nuclear retaliation, or North Korean chemical, biological, or conventional massive retaliation.

The proposed strike-plan also seeks to constrain escalation by limiting the size of the target set.

A U.S. strike against North Korean nuclear assets that can be executed quickly, surgically, against the smallest number of targets, is least likely to be misconstrued as an attempt to destroy the North Korean regime in an all-out war, and therefore least likely to result in escalation to North Korean use of nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.


Highest priority is destruction of North Korea's two satellites that may be nuclear-armed for electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack that orbit over the U.S. several times daily.  EMP could blackout North America for months or years and kill up to 90 percent of the population through starvation and societal collapse.

We do not know if North Korea's satellites are nuclear-armed, but their potential EMP threat to the U.S. (and every nation on Earth) is intolerable.  The best and brightest national security officials of the Reagan and Clinton administrations have called for shooting them down.

This could assuredly be accomplished with special Aegis guided missile cruisers or National Missile Defenses.  Interception should be over unpopulated arctic or broad ocean areas to limit the threat to humanity, just in case the satellites are salvage-fused for an EMP burst upon interception.

After destroying North Korea's satellites, a strategic pause might be prudent to let the message sink in to North Korea, China, and Russia that the United States is finally serious and determined to denuclearize North Korea-by force if necessary.  For the first time in a quarter-century, the U.S. will have struck a blow, and eliminated the greatest potential North Korean threat.

Destruction of North Korea's satellites alone, one of the smallest and most easily executed military operations, might be enough to bring about a diplomatic solution.

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs)

Next, the U.S. should destroy North Korea's ICBMs, that threaten the U.S. mainland, Alaska and Hawaii.  These number only a dozen or fewer.

Although North Korean ICBMs are mobile and protected in mountain tunnels, the intelligence community has had years to study their locations and patrol areas.  The U.S. can assuredly destroy the ICBMs, probably in less than an hour.  Aegis anti-missile cruisers should be surged into the theater as an insurance policy.

Yongbyon, Submarines, Bombers

Adding to the hit parade the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex would destroy much of North Korea's capability to make nuclear weapons.

North Korea's single nuclear missile submarine, the Simpo-1, and 12 hulls that may be under construction, are sitting ducks, easily destroyed, as are its 60 nuclear bombers.  The submarines and bombers are ranked above IRBMs in the strike plan, not because they are more important, but because they are so much easier to destroy.

Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs)

North Korea's 30-50 IRBMs may be significantly more challenging to target and destroy than targets 1-5.  Assuredly locating and destroying all the mobile IRBMs may take more time, and raise the escalatory risks.

Nonetheless, adding the IRBMs increases the total targets to fewer than 150.  Three aircraft carriers and U.S. Global Strike forces should be able to find and destroy all these in a few hours. 

Destroying targets 1-6, including IRBMs, would eliminate North Korea's nuclear missile threat to all the United States and its territories.

Medium-Range and Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs and SRBMs)

North Korea's medium- and short-range missiles would still threaten U.S. allies South Korea and Japan and U.S. military bases located there.  MRBMs and SRBMs, numbering in the hundreds, would probably take days to locate and destroy, and entail operations of such scale and intensity that they could easily be misconstrued as an attempt to kill the North Korean regime.

As destroying all the MRBMs and SRBMs would greatly increase escalatory risk, without greatly increasing the security of the United States, a limited surgical strike should probably exclude these.


Escalatory Risks

If North Korea escalates with nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. should be prepared to launch a massive disarming strike and decapitate the North Korean regime-including with nuclear weapons.

However, North Korea is not likely to launch nuclear weapons, and thereby assuredly annihilate itself, in response to a U.S. limited disarming strike.  Nor would Kim Jong-Un likely risk annihilation by massively retaliating with chemical, biological, or conventional weapons.  The much feared massed artillery barrage against Seoul is also unlikely, because Kim may be psychopathic, but he is not suicidal.

In the aftermath of the above U.S. surgical strike eliminating North Korea's nuclear threat to the United States, Kim's situation would not be so bad or desperate that he would likely launch a suicidal Gotterdammerung.  Dictator Kim Jong-Un would remain in power and retain hundreds of MRBMs and SRBMs armed with conventional, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to defend his regime.  Kim's enormous conventional armed forces comprising 1.2 million fanatically loyal soldiers, 7,700 armored vehicles, 20,000 artillery, and over 500 aircraft would remain to console and reassure him.

History offers some hopeful examples of successful intra-conflict deterrence against psychopathic megalomaniacs, like North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, who faced much worse circumstances:

--Adolph Hitler, even while waiting for the Russians in his Fuehrer Bunker, refrained from using Tabun and Sarin nerve gas (invented by the Nazis) hoping to strike a deal with the U.S. and Britain against the USSR.

--Saddam Hussein did not retaliate for Israel's bombing Iraq's A-Bomb program at the Osirak Nuclear Reactor in 1981.

--Saddam refrained from using chemical weapons against U.S. and allied troops during the First and Second Persian Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003.

--Bashar Assad did not retaliate for Israel's destruction of his A-Bomb program when Israel destroyed Syria's Al-Kibar nuclear facility (being built by North Korea) in 2007.

  There are contrary examples.  During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro urged Khrushchev to launch nuclear missiles against the U.S., knowing it would mean the annihilation of Cuba.

Striking North Korea to disarm its nuclear threat against the U.S. is not risk free.  But it is riskier still to trust that 25 years of failed diplomacy will now succeed in denuclearizing North Korea.  Riskier still is hoping, as advised by Susan Rice, former national security advisor to President Obama, that we can learn to live with a nuclear North Korea.

Millions of Americans will almost certainly die if we gamble on Mutual Assured Destruction with Kim Jong-Un.  Kim is not suicidal, but he is a recklessly aggressive paranoid psychopath.  Sooner or later, through design or miscalculation, he will strike us.

   EMP and Missile Defense Increased Preparedness

Beginning immediately and prior to a disarming strike against North Korea, while giving diplomacy its last chance, the U.S. should:

--EMP harden the national electric grid on an emergency basis.  Much could be accomplished in 6 months.

--Crash-develop improved offensive and defensive weapons, including Super-EMP weapons and better anti-missile defenses.  Revolutionary weapons have languished throughout the Obama Administration, awaiting a visionary or needful President.


The Bottom Line

A U.S. disarming strike against North Korea would restore America's tattered credibility and could preserve peace for a generation:

--The North Korean "nuclear gun" built by China and Russia, and their best plan for winning their New Cold War against the United States and the Free World, would be defeated.

--Deterrence against aggression by China and Russia in Asia and Europe would be strengthened.

--Iran might be deterred from further nuclearization, and the principle of "assertive disarmament" established to enforce the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

--The U.S. would buy itself time to build Fortress America by EMP hardening its critical infrastructures and deploying revolutionary space-based missile defenses, successfully developed by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), that would render nuclear missiles obsolete.

--Fortress America hardened against EMP and protected by space-based defenses would deprive Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran of their best threats.  The bad guys would have to catch-up technologically, or consign themselves to the ash heap of history, or join the civilized world.

Those who would not risk a disarming strike against North Korea from fear of nuclear retaliation should consider this.  If Kim Jong-Un is so aggressive that he would provoke his own annihilation by retaliating massively for the loss of so relatively little of his military capabilities, then we had better strike him now, while he has fewer than 12 ICBMs, and not wait until he has 100 ICBMs and is ready to strike us.

Finally, there are other options, much less risky and easier to execute, for neutralizing the nuclear threat from North Korea.

Unfortunately, some of the best of these options-that are alternatives to war-the United States has outlawed and prohibited to itself.  Yet throughout history all nations and every nation on Earth today, except the United States, has used and still uses the full panoply of intelligence and clandestine black arts.

This self-imposed moratorium and misguided idealism has already cost 3,000 American lives during 9/11.  Shall Kim Jong-Un now be allowed to kill millions more Americans on behalf of political correctness?

Don Pompeo, livarsi na pietra di la scarpa.


A version of this piece also appeared on Washington Times


Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is Executive Director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security and Director of the U.S. Nuclear Strategy Forum, both Congressional Advisory Boards, and served on the Congressional EMP Commission, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is author of Apocalypse Unknown: The Struggle To Protect America From An Electromagnetic Pulse Catastrophe and Electric Armageddon, both available from CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com


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