North Korea grows nuclear program at expense of US security
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Our new commander in chief will face many foreign security issues when he or she takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. The most unpredictable concern, for which the U.S. has only unideal responses, rests with the potential for a global reach nuclear missile capable North Korea.

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In a recent column titled, “Can North Korea Really Nuke America?” political scientist John A. Tures recounts one expert’s comments on that nation’s calculus when it comes to the value of nuclear weapons. The column quotes Mark Tokola, vice-president of the Korean Economic Institute of America, when he told an audience of military personnel, politicians and a few students that:

“North Korea saw what happened to Saddam (Hussein) and (Muammar) Gaddafi when they didn’t have nukes, as well as how Russia invaded Ukraine after Ukraine gave up their weapons.”

Despite the New York Times reporting on Oct. 19 that the North Koreans have chalked up another failure in their missile testing program, Reuters reflected on Nov. 1 in “U.S. officials say North Korea preparing missile launch: report” that an aggressive missile testing program continues.

Mark B. Schneider wrote in “Does North Korea Have a Missile-Deliverable Nuclear Weapon?” that as far back as 2013 “(then-) Secretary of Defense (Chuck) Hagel himself stated, ‘They (the North Koreans) have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now.’”

That capacity has been confined within the Asian theater.

Writing for NPR, Mary Louise Kelly reports that former CIA officer Dennis Wilder “believes that North Korea is on track to be able to strike the continental United States with a nuclear-armed missile within the next five years.”

Using the estimates from the Institute for Science and International Security, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute we can assume that North Korea has 15 to 20 nuclear weapons.

Some additional estimates can put the threat to the continental United States into perspective.

According to NUKEMAP by Alex Wellerstein, an airburst from a 10kt warhead (kt—thousands of tons of TNT) would result in about 42 thousand dead with 160 thousand injuries in central San Francisco, 70 thousand dead and 150 thousand injuries in Los Angeles and 81 thousand dead with 297 thousand injuries in Tokyo; roughly 80 to 90 percent more resulting from a 20kt warhead.

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The U.S. response to this growing threat is underscored by the level of cooperation between the U.S. and South Korea to deploy strategic military assets. The Korean Times reported on Oct, 21 that:
“South Korea and the United States will consider deploying U.S. strategic military assets to the South permanently on a rotational basis to strengthen the U.S. ‘extended deterrence’ protection of the Asian ally from nuclear and missile threats from North Korea … amid heightened security concerns in South Korea in the wake of the North's fifth nuclear test and a series of ballistic missile launches.”

But of even greater concern than North Korea simply holding weapons, Dennis Wilder argued, is the fact that leader Kim Jong-Un might decide to export.”

On Jan. 12, Sam Kim in “North Korea Turns More Erratic as Kim's Inner Circle Shrinks” for Bloomberg News referred to North Korea as:

“one of the world’s most unpredictable regimes (that) has become even more erratic.”

Paul D. Shinkman, writing for U.S. New and World Report in January 2014 in “Top U.S. Officer: Kim Jong Un Irrational, Unpredictable” quoted Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, as saying “The young leader, for me...is unpredictable." 

This combination of a growing threat of global nuclear reach and unpredictability create a security and political challenge for our next president. When you couple these with the potential for worldwide export of this capability to both state and non-state actors and only poor options available to deal with the threat, the next president will face a major challenge on day one that can quickly spiral out of control.    

DeMaggio is a retired Special Agent in Charge and retired Captain in the U.S. Navy. The above is the opinion of the author and is not meant to reflect the opinion of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Government.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.