Two of America’s top generals have said that the U.S. should assume North Korea can launch a nuclear strike against the homeland.
“We should assume today that North Korea has that capability and has the will to use that capability,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said in front of the the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday, adding that soon North Korea will have the ability to reliably strike the continental U.S.
“Whether it’s three months or six months or eighteen months, it is soon, and we ought to conduct ourselves as though it is just a matter of time, and a matter of very short time, before North Korea has that capability,” he explained.
The head of U.S. Strategic Command made similar statements at a conference last week.
“I have to assume, that they have the bomb and they will have the capability to deploy it on an [intercontinental ballistic missile],” General John Hyten said at a Hudson Institute event.
Hyten, too, suggested that North Korea is on a path to develop a reliable nuclear strike option capable of seriously threatening the U.S.
“We have to look at that capability of North Korea as a matter of when, not if,” he told guests, explaining that while North Korea has yet to put everything together and demonstrate its full power, it appears to be moving in that direction.
North Korea tested its Hwasong-14 (KN-20) ICBM twice successfully in July, and then the rogue regime tested a staged thermonuclear bomb with an explosive yield potentially in excess of 300 kilotons earlier this month. The North claimed it tested a hydrogen bomb warhead capable of being mounted on an ICBM.
“I am assuming it was a hydrogen bomb,” Hyten said about two weeks after the test, adding, “that has the capability to destroy a city.”
Both generals, however, signaled that the U.S. is ready for a fight if North Korea chooses to go that route.
“If they want to attack the United States with nuclear weapons, it is not going to work out well for North Korea,” Hyten said. Dunford commented that the U.S. missile defense systems in place are currently sufficient to handle the North Korean threat, but it is essential that the U.S. keep pace with North Korean developments.
“As the capacity of the threat increases — that is the size, not just the lethality, not just that North Korea can reach us, but the number of missiles they possess that can reach us — what we need to be concerned about is ensuring our ballistic missile defense capability keeps pace with that,” he said.
While alarming, Dunford and Hyten’s acknowledgement of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities is a welcome change from the usual approach — denial. Dunford said last month that it would be “unimaginable” to allow North Korea to develop the ability to hit the U.S. with a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.
It has long been U.S. practice to doubt or underestimate North Korea’s offensive capabilities, denying that the rogue regime possesses the ability to do something until they demonstrate it. For instance, when North Korea tested an ICBM the first time, observers were quick to point out its limitations, suggesting that it could possibly only hit Alaska. During the second test, the country demonstrated the ability to strike large parts, if not most, of the continental U.S.
While some suggest racism plays a role, others argue that there are political motivations for these denials. “Some people think that admitting the North Koreans have thermonuclear weapons on missiles that can strike the United States will strengthen the case for missile defenses or a preventive attack,” Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program in the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, recently told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
“I think the main problem is that we don’t know what to do,” he said. “And, so rather than admit that our policy has failed and we don’t have a plan, we pretend that we still have time to figure this out.”
The U.S. did the same thing when China first emerged as a nuclear weapons state, leading China to put a nuclear bomb on a missile and fire it off to demonstrate its capabilities. It is unclear if North Korea would take a similar step, but North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said recently that the regime may detonate a hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific Ocean.
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