New U.S. Missiles in Asia Could Increase the North Korean Nuclear Threat
he 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty expired on Aug. 2 when the United States’ withdrawal from that agreement became official. Foreign Policy reports in its article New U.S. Missiles in Asia Could Increase the North Korean Nuclear Threat that now, unencumbered by INF restrictions, U.S. planning has turned toward the development and deployment of previously proscribed missiles—primarily to Asia, where competition with China is an acute future concern.
But China isn’t the only major strategic concern in a post-INF Asia. What should greatly worry strategic planners in Washington is the inadvertent ways in which the deployment of new U.S. missiles in the Pacific theater might greatly increase the risk of nuclear weapons use on and around the Korean Peninsula.
A second-order effect of a new U.S. missile deployment to the region would be the complication of any attempts at diplomacy with North Korea over its nuclear program. Indeed, Kim Jong Un’s resolve to retain his nuclear capabilities would likely harden as a result.
While the beginnings of the post-INF debate in the United States have largely focused on Russia and China, it is the unintended consequences with North Korea that are most likely to raise nuclear risks in the short term. While the beginnings of the post-INF debate in the United States have largely focused on Russia and China, it is the unintended consequences with North Korea that are most likely to raise nuclear risks in the short term. Unlike China, which can be confident in its ability to retaliate, North Korea’s current command and control practices and its limited nuclear arsenal may force it to reevaluate its choices to date, taking it down a dangerous path.
With its withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the United States has opted to catch up with the missile capabilities of its two great-power rivals. Russia, the major post-Soviet counterpart to the INF Treaty, has developed a missile known as the 9M729. Moscow’s development of this missile—and surreptitious testing thereof over several years—began the INF Treaty’s demise under the Obama administration until the treaty- and arms control-averse Trump administration decided the easiest solution to the problem Moscow had created was withdrawal.
But more so than Russia’s lone INF-violating missile, of greater concern to many in Washington today is China’s considerably larger missile arsenal—some 95 percent of which falls in the INF-proscribed category of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with range capabilities of 300 to 3,300 miles.
Beijing was never a party to the INF and, as its economy boomed, built up a formidable missile arsenal unencumbered. Many of these missiles would pose a significant challenge for the freedom of maneuver of U.S. and allied forces in the Asia-Pacific region in a conflict situation.
With Washington’s seemingly irreversible embrace of great-power competition with China, there are urgent calls to develop commensurate U.S. capabilities. As a result, the core of the post-INF debate appears to be consolidating around how new U.S. capabilities might transform military planning and options in the Pacific.
The Trump administration’s review and withdrawal from the INF Treaty occurred so quickly that very little practical strategic planning was able to take place. U.S. allies were briefed on the nature of the Russian violation and hastily gave their blessing to Washington’s plans. Now, with plans to begin building and testing post-INF U.S. non-nuclear missiles, a number of questions remain. One of the most obvious is the issue of basing—where new U.S. missiles would go—particularly given the political concerns that arise with allies.
Unlike Western Europe’s relatively compressed continental geography, the Pacific offers limited basing options for ground-based missiles. Until serious consultations begin with allies—such as Japan—on forward-basing missiles, the obvious Pacific contender for any American post-INF deployments is the U.S. territory of Guam, which sits nearly 2,000 miles away from China’s eastern coastline.
The U.S. Defense Department plans to soon develop at least one new post-INF ballistic missile with a range capability of 1,800 to 2,400 miles—an ideal system to hold parts of eastern China and the entirety of the operating theater around Taiwan at risk from Guam. It just so happens that such a missile would also have a capability of striking Pyongyang with a flight time of just 20 minutes.
North Korea today considers itself to be in a nuclear deterrent relationship with the United States, even if this goes unacknowledged in Washington, where hopes of a disarmament deal have remained alive through multiple rounds of unproductive high-level summitry through 2018 and 2019. Indeed, Pyongyang’s completion of its “state nuclear force” in 2017 with initial flight-testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) allowed Kim to pivot toward diplomacy in 2018.
Thanks to his nuclear weapons, Kim not only won international prestige but sought to initiate a process with the United States that would lead to a new kind of U.S.-North Korea relationship. As North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho told the United Nations General Assembly in 2017, Pyongyang sought to convey the message that a “balance of power”—that is, a stable nuclear deterrence relationship—might prevail between the United States and North Korea.