February 12, 2016 | Commentary on US-Korea Relations, Missile Defense, Alliances

China Useless Against North Korea’s Missile Mania

Last month, Asia’s nonstop nuisance, North Korea, went “nuclear” with an atomic test; this month, it went “ballistic” with its launch of an Unha (“Galaxy”) missile carrying a Kwangmyongsong (“Bright Star”) satellite into space.

Talk about anger management problems!

Fortunately for us, January’s nuclear weapons test seems to have fallen shy of being the megaton-yielding, hydrogen (thermonuclear) bomb North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had promised.

Rather, some experts believe that while not a thermonuclear blast, it may have been what atom aficionados call a “boosted-fission” bomb, which might signal an advance in nuclear weapons design for Pyongyang.

The other concern with the January nuclear test is that — despite the lower yield — North Korea may have moved closer to, or improved on, “weaponizing” its nuclear test device for use in a missile warhead.

The underground-tested device may not be small enough — or light enough — to fit into the ballistic missile’s nose cone for a flight to its intended target.

The warhead must then be developed to withstand the tremendous temperatures, vibrations and pressures of flight that may include atmosphere re-entry. (An ICBM may reach speeds of 15,000 mph during flight.)

But that’s just a few of the pieces of the nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) jigsaw puzzle that North Korea may be trying to solve.

Another big piece is getting the nuke-tipped ICBM to its destination, which requires some significant savvy in rocketry science: You must be able to lift your payload into space.

North Korea has now been able to successfully put a satellite payload into space twice. Some experts believe that the “Nork” satellites weigh a few hundred pounds each.

Unfortunately for North Korea, a rudimentary nuclear warhead weighs somewhere in the range of 1,000 pounds to 2,000 pounds, so it’s possible that Pyongyang isn’t quite there yet in terms of space launch lift capacity.

Or is it?

Some senior U.S. military brass have said (as recently as 2015) that North Korea could likely reach about two-thirds (i.e., the western and central parts) of the United States with a nuclear-armed ICBM.

One thing is clear: They’re working on upping the odds with each missile and/or nuclear test. (Indeed, some think the newest missile may have a longer range than earlier versions and the satellite may be the heaviest yet.)

But that’s not all that’s increasingly certain.

We should get it that China can’t — or won’t — nullify North Korea from engaging in missile mania or nuclear naughtiness as many thought.

We should also understand that the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience” toward the North Korean regime isn’t preventing Pyongyang from becoming a bigger threat.

It’s also obvious that U.N. resolutions on North Korea missile and atomic activities and a chorus of condemnation aren’t having the desired effect on the regime’s roguish behavior.

After three nuclear tests and two successful long-range ballistic missile launches (with satellites) since 2009, maybe it’s time for a change in Team Obama’s policy to better “manage” Pyongyang’s provocations.

 - Peter Brookes, Senior Fellow

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Originally appeared in Boston Herald