On October 3, 1942 — 75 years ago this year — a prototype German V-2 rocket launched from the German military firing range at Peenemunde in the Baltic reached an altitude of 84.5 km (52.5 miles). It was, by some definitions, the first human-built object in space.
It was the height of World War Two, and with the entry of the United States into the conflict the tide was already turning against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. They knew, however, that if they could perfect both the world’s first ballistic missiles and win the race to an atomic bomb, they would become virtually unassailable.
Had Germany gotten the bomb first, the Allies most likely would have had to sue for peace rather than risk the Hiroshima and Nagasaki-like destruction of many Western cities.
Luckily for the rest of the world, it was a capability Hitler never achieved. But it’s a lesson that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un appears to have taken to heart.
With two tests of his latest Hwasong-12 ballistic missile on July 4 and 28, he looks to be on the precipice of achieving what only a handful of America’s enemies have dreamed — the ability to hit the U.S. mainland with nuclear force.
It’s a strategic sea change that has been a long time coming — and which many in the U.S. defense establishment have long expected. It’s doubtful either North Korean or U.S. officials genuinely know how accurate North Korea’s current rockets would be at intercontinental range. It’s one thing to be able to fire a rocket a third of the way around the planet. It’s another to know with certainty that it will hit a city, or that the warhead within it will actually explode.
As Pyongyang’s test program moves forward — there seems little prospect of it pulling back — the answers to those questions will emerge. Already, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency is reported to be operating under the assumption North Korea has now perfected a small-enough warhead to fit on a rocket.
Kim’s progress on rockets is even clearer. Analysis by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies of video footage of the latest two launches suggests Pyongyang now has a working rocket motor based on Soviet rocket engines not used by Russia since the 1990s.
It’s uncertain how Pyongyang acquired such technology so much quicker than expected. IISS suggests the most likely origins are poorly-guarded military stockpiles or illicit networks in Russia and Ukraine. The important point, however, is that this is not especially sophisticated technology. If the North Koreans don’t have it working yet, they — and the former Soviet scientists suspected to be helping them — will fix it before long.
Russia, of course, has had the ability to inflict massive damage on the U.S. mainland since at least the 1950s. Both Washington and Russia swarmed all over Germany’s research sites after the war, taking that technology- and the experts behind it, and refining it still further. China too has been able to strike the U.S. since the 1960s.
Each of those redefined Washington’s diplomatic and military options. Broadly, however, both Moscow and Beijing have been seen largely as responsible fellow superpowers. For all the fears and paranoia of the Cold War era, there was often a general feeling that the fear of “mutually assured destruction” could keep things under control.
That is seen as less certain with Kim. It’s not that the young North Korean leader is expected to lash out randomly with some kind of unilateral, unexpected strike; he knows that would result in his own regime’s destruction. The entire point of his nuclear program has always been to safeguard his rule, not bring it to a cataclysmic early conclusion.
The problem, though, will come if the wheels start to come off the rule of the current North Korean leadership. There’s no particular reason to believe it is on the verge of imminent collapse, but pressures on it will continue to rise.
Kim’s hope seems to be that the more potent his nuclear capabilities, the more the rest of the world feels it has no choice but to allow him to stay in position. The opposite, however, may happen. This month’s unanimous United Nations Security Council resolution sparked by the successful missile tests will notably increase economic strains on North Korea. China is frustrated, and is tightening the screws on Pyongyang with a ban on importing certain North Korean products such as coal and iron.
Within the U.S., meanwhile, there are growing calls for Washington to step up its attempts to aggressively destabilize North Korea, supporting some indigenous South Korean-based efforts to undermine Kim’s rule.
The problem is that any revolution — whether outside inspired or not — or alternative end to the Kim regime is made more dangerous by the rising nuclear threat. Earlier this year, I chaired a panel that included former senior U.S. officials examining what might happen if the North Korean regime collapsed. Their conclusion was stark: if Kim felt he was about to be ousted or killed, he would almost certainly launch. Likely targets would be Japan and, if he could reach it, the U.S. mainland.
U.S.-operated antiballistic missile batteries based in Japan and South Korea are supposed to provide a last-ditch defense against this kind of risk. However, such technology remains in its early stages. Shooting down a fast-falling ballistic missile remains difficult if not impossible. Shooting down several is harder still.
All this helps explain this last round of speculation over a potentially imminent strike, intensified by U.S. President Donald Trump’s talk of “fire and fury” and military options being “locked and loaded.” For many in the U.S. national security establishment, there is a real feeling that this may be the last moment such an option is tenable. Others believe it is already too late.
The dangers of a conventional war on the Korean peninsula, particularly North Korean conventional artillery strikes on the South Korean capital of Seoul, were enough to deter Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama from taking military action against Pyongyang. North Korea’s latest missile tests arguably put even further pressure on Trump to make the same calculus.
Which way this idiosyncratic, unpredictable president will jump, even he may not yet know. His advice from his national security team may well be deeply conflicting. Should he strike, some will unquestionably accuse him of simply trying to distract from domestic political woes.
If disaster does come, the U.S. may well regret acting — or not having acted sooner. In reality, though, it may always have been inevitable America would face a situation like this. Indeed, perhaps the surprise should be that it has taken this long.