Before leaving for the G20 Summit in Germany, President Trump said the era of strategic patience is over. This comes after the return of the imprisoned American, Otto Warmbier, who died in the arms of his family after being tortured by the North Koreans, followed by yet another ballistic missile test over the Sea of Japan. We may not be on the brink of war, but China and North Korea are playing a dangerous game. Understanding this relationship is therefore central.
It begins with the recognition that North Korea and China are joined geographically, economically, and ideologically. On a strategic level, they are as much eastern China as North Korea. North Korea depends on China for food and energy, and 90 percent of North Korea’s trade is with the Chinese. It is inconceivable that President Xi Jinping could not stop Kim Jong-Un’s missile testing and nuclear program if he so desired. It is then a matter of high government policy that he does not.
Consider the latest belligerence. What is different about the North Korean nuclear program in these first six months of the Trump Administration and last fall when Barack Obama was still president? Has their nuclear or missile technology advanced to new levels of sophistication? Has the strategic landscape in Asia changed? Has the North Korean economic situation deteriorated beyond the third world basket case it already was? The answer to all these is no. This would mean Kim’s show of force—from missile tests, nuclear tests, or a military parade in Pyongyang—is political theatre meant to shape American political judgments. Make no mistake, such weapons are deadly but they can also be used for different ends.
The recent launch of the North Korean missile into space and then into the Sea of Japan serves two purposes: first, to give leverage to North Korea’s Communist Chinese masters in economic and financial negotiations with the United States; and second, to remind anyone in America who cares, that the United States remains vulnerable to North Korean, Chinese, Russian, and Iranian ballistic missiles.
It should come as a surprise to no one that the Chinese have helped the North Koreans with their ballistic missile program and have had every interest in doing so. This affords them tremendous political leverage with the United States, as China—the neighboring superpower—plays the role of reasonable intermediary, interceding on behalf of the United States and the world to check the nuclear ambitions of their North Korean brothers. But this intercession comes at a cost. China would be happy to help the United States, but Beijing couldn’t possibly do that and be pressured over its own failure to abide by international standards when it comes to trade and finance, including currency manipulation. This is a game the Chinese have played successfully for decades. Consider it the Chinese Art of the Deal.
Respecting our vulnerability to ballistic missiles, it should be a national scandal that North Korea’s belligerence is in the news at all. It is made possible only because of the fecklessness of successive U.S. administrations to build a national missile defense capable of stopping a nuclear attack. Although we possess the technology and technical know-how—from missile interceptors based on land, sea, or in space—to make North Korea’s arsenal completely irrelevant, we choose instead to leave the American people vulnerable to such an attack. This is a relic of the absurd Cold War mentality that missile defense was “destabilizing” and that we were somehow safer if we let the U.S. population remain held hostage to nuclear attack.
Everyday Americans support the building of missile defenses and indeed are outraged and confused that we do not have one sufficient to defend the United States. Thankfully, no U.S. president can make the argument in public that, as a matter of principle, we should be vulnerable to such awful weapons. Recall President Obama telling Russian President Medvedev in 2012 that he would have more “flexibility” on missile defense after the election. Medvedev assured Obama he would relay the message to then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. This would be conveyed because Russia, like China, likes living in a world where the United States remains vulnerable to their nuclear weapons and the political leverage such nuclear blackmail affords them.
To understand what Obama meant by “flexibility,” one need only examine the state of our missile defenses that President Trump inherited. We have purposely built a “limited” missile defense—meaning one that was openly designed not to stop Russian and Chinese missiles—to deal instead with the rogue states of Iran and North Korea. Failed missile interceptor tests, like the one on June 22 in Hawaii, are a remnant of the Obama Administration’s intentional underinvestment in research, development and operational testing. In reality, even this limited missile defense system is inadequate to stop the North Korean or Iranian threat. The sole purpose of our current missile defense system is to give the illusion that we are defended.
Obama, long an opponent of missile defense, nuclear weapons, and a robust American military, was a master at such deception. To the American people he seemed interested in keeping the country safe from nuclear attack. To the Russians and Chinese, however, he made clear that we would not build defenses to stop their nuclear arsenals. They saw what was being built and saw that the U.S. defenses were meaningless. This while the Russians and Chinese develop and perfect their own missile defense systems against the United States.
Vulnerabilities Then and Now
In today’s political rhetoric, Obama colluded with the Russians and the Chinese to undermine the U.S. strategic position in the world. The only thing that excuses Obama is that he was continuing the policy of strategic vulnerability to missile attack, no different than Bush and Clinton before him. Unlike his predecessors, President Trump is not willing to leave the citizens of the United States to the tender mercies of dictators. He has committed to building a national missile defense and checking the military ambitions of the Chinese and the Russians.
The stakes could not be higher. Although the U.S. intelligence community acts as if the North Koreans do not yet possess adequate nuclear technology, there can be no absolute certainty that they do not already possess ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads capable of being launched from North Korean territory or from a ship or submarine off the coast of the United States. To believe so is to continue the self-deception that the Chinese and the North Koreans are working independent of one another. There is nothing stopping the Chinese from providing the North Koreans with lighter, smaller, and just as lethal nuclear warheads. Indeed, why would they not?
If the purpose of North Korea is to play the role of angry aggressor against the United States, they might as well be capable of carrying through. But if nuclear attack does come it will not be an angry strike by the seemingly volatile Kim Jung-Un, though it may appear that way. It will have been from a cold calculation by China’s Xi Jinping and the Communist politburo that they no longer wished to live with the perceived hyper power of the United States. The destruction of the United States would afford China—with its population, industrial capacity, and massive economy—global military dominance. It may not make short-term economic sense but history is replete with actions that do not make immediate sense. It is incumbent upon President Trump to make clear to President Xi that a North Korean strike on the United States will be seen as a strike by the People’s Republic. President Xi and his successors may not make such a gross strategic error but, absent a national missile defense, such mistakes are possible.
To remedy our strategic vulnerability President Trump should do the following three things:
First, the United States must engage in a missile defense program with the seriousness with which we fought World War II and fostered the Manhattan Project and the space program of the 1960s. Teams of engineers should be working around the clock, seven days a week, to build a missile defense that is space-based, land-based and sea-based that defends the United States from any possible nuclear ballistic missile attack. We have treated missile defense as if our civilization was not worth defending. That must end.
Second, as a practical matter, the North Koreans and Iranians should be told that any satellite launch or missile test where we do not inspect the payload will not be allowed into orbit. Any unauthorized launch will be intercepted, if we are able, or will be destroyed in space. Theoretically, the present North Korean satellites could possess nuclear warheads. Since at least two traverse the orbit of the United States they should be destroyed, too. A state cannot be permitted to launch missiles while at the same time declaring they wish to destroy the United States. That we have allowed this condition to persist as long as we have is unconscionable.
Third, because the payload of a missile or satellite may carry a nuclear warhead capable of producing an Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) that could destroy the electric infrastructure of the country, there should be a crash program to harden the electric grid of the United States. The cost of this critical fix is in the tens of billions but it is an embarrassingly small amount to ensure the viability of a 19 trillion dollar economy and the lives of 320 million Americans, the vast majority of whom would die for lack of food, water, and medicine made possible by our electrical grid.
Hardening the grid would have the added benefit of protecting the country’s power infrastructure from a little known atmospheric phenomenon: a Carrington-level solar storm. Although we are told regularly of the dangers of global warming, a massive solar storm, where a large plasma discharge from the sun sends an extraordinarily large magnetic pulse at the atmosphere of the earth, is the most serious natural disaster we face. The last Carrington-level event occurred in 1859 before electricity was used in homes and businesses, and they appear according to scientists to occur about every 150 to 300 years. If one were to occur today the massive solar flare would, like a nuclear weapon, destroy the large transformers that distribute power through the United States. With little notice, a natural event could destroy the power grid of the United States and our civilization could be lost. Even if someone doubts the likelihood of nuclear war and an EMP attack, we know with certainty that a massive solar flare could destroy the electric grid. Hardening against that is an immediate obligation of our government.
An America-First Response
After the return and death of Otto Warmbier there was much talk of retaliation against the North Koreans. Other than economic sanctions, the United States has few good military options. North Korea’s conventional weapons could devastate South Korea and precipitate much greater hostilities. If the PRC does indeed see North Korea as eastern China they will not let such an attack occur with impunity.
In any case, the American response should not be, given the makeup of our strategic offenses and defenses, an attack on the people of North Korea. That does not make us better off, however satisfying it may seem. The goal should be to improve our strategic position in the world. President Trump should carry through on his campaign pledge and accelerate the building of a national missile defense to negate the North Korean, Chinese, Russian and Iranian nuclear arsenals.
This would be putting America first and doing what no U.S. president has yet to do: ensure that no enemy could threaten the U.S. homeland with nuclear destruction. If there is a single policy that will help make America great again it is this.
(Editor’s note: We’ve updated the piece to more accurately reflect the geographic location of North Korea in relation to China.)