Can the U.S. Stop a Nuclear Attack? North Korea Tests Were Simulation

Missile tests conducted last week by North Korea have drawn attention worldwide, believed by some officials and weapons experts to be a step toward potential nuclear exercises.

Reuters reported Monday that North Korea's launch of multiple short-range ballistic missiles and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) were described as simulated strikes against United States and South Korean air bases, aircraft and major cities.

The simulation was conducted in response to Vigilant Storm, the joint exercises conducted by the U.S. and South Korea "to shore up not only our alliance" but also to show strength, as described by deputy Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh.

North Korea referred to the exercises as an "open provocation aimed at intentionally escalating the tension" and "a dangerous war drill of very high aggressive nature."

National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby told Newsweek last week that the U.S. has been "consistently concerned about North Korean provocations" for a while, leading to added "intelligence capabilities off the Korean Peninsula" to provide better insight into the country's behavior.

The White House has warned that Pyongyang could imminently conduct a seventh nuclear test.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III and Republic of Korea (ROK) Minister of National Defense Lee Jong-sup spoke Thursday, expressing solidarity in the wake of North Korea's launches.

"At this time of heightened tension, our alliance is ironclad," Austin said. "The United States remains fully committed to the defense of the ROK. And our extended deterrence commitment is firm. And it includes a full range of our nuclear and conventional and missile defense capabilities."

'This Is Really About Regime Preservation'

"This is the most significant exercise of [North Korea's] defenses that I've seen," Ian Williams, fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and deputy director of the Missile Defense Project, told Newsweek.

In terms of timing and political significance, Williams said North Korea has been on a path with an objective to build out a functioning strategic deterrent that differs from those of previous North Korean leadership—where it was "more of a show, a pageant" under the late Kim Jong Il, for example.

"I don't think they're after anything materially from the West," Williams said. "This is really about regime preservation and trying to stay in power and doing so by building a legitimate strategic deterrent—not necessarily to win a war...but to do enough damage and make it so painful that it would deter any attempts to change the regime by force at some point."

North Korea Missile Tests Nuclear Ballistic
Television screens show a news report about the latest North Korean missile launch with file footage of a North Korean missile, at an electronics market in Seoul, South Korea, on November 3. Reuters reported Monday that North Korea's launch of multiple short-range ballistic missiles and an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) were described as simulated strikes against United States and South Korean air bases, aircraft and major cities. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. strategy against nuclear ICBMs possessed by Russia or China is through deterrence and a threat of retaliation, Williams said, which has "been the case since the Cold War" and "continues to be the case now." He defined it as "stability through vulnerability."

The posture against North Korea is more defense-dominant.

"Not only would we be able to retaliate against an attack, we'd be able to stop an attack and minimize damage to a great degree," Williams said.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the lone U.S. operational homeland defense system against nuclear attacks, includes 44 interceptors in states like California and Alaska.

The National Bureau of Asian Research reported last year that despite ongoing U.S. investments, factors including "technical shortcomings, a poor record of testing, and limited oversight have cast significant doubt" on the ability to defend against nuclear missiles from Korea.

Williams said present North Korean missiles are not sophisticated but are becoming more so.

Even General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said earlier this year that North Korea poses "real threats" with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. In 2017, he said the U.S. would "utterly destroy" North Korea if it attacked the U.S. with nukes.

Last Friday, Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that North Korea "entered its most intense period of missile testing ever in recent weeks."

Snyder told Newsweek that North Korea's testing is broadly related to efforts to strengthen specific aspects of the ability to deploy short-range missiles, which aim to incorporate a tactical nuclear capability.

Some analysts have estimated that North Korea may have enough material for over 100 nuclear weapons, backed by one of the world's largest militaries.

His sense is that the U.S. "has some confidence" in its ability to intercept a single North Korean missile, though confidence wanes in response to a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle that Kim Jong Un intends to develop and acquire as part of nuclear tech.

"The other main obstacle facing the North Korean problem is that Pyongyang has not yet demonstrated an atmospheric reentry capability for its ICBMs," Snyder said. "They may have done some relevant ground testing, but they have not to date conclusively demonstrated an in-flight capability for their missiles to reenter the atmosphere."

Williams said that repeated attempts "to get North Korea to the table" regarding denuclearization have been unsuccessful, including under former presidents George W. Bush, Donald Trump and Barack Obama—who "tried early on [in his presidency] and realized it was a fool's game."

"It's like Charlie Brown with the football: This North Korea regime is not serious about denuclearization," he said. "They see missiles as far more valuable than any concession they could get from the West....The message [since 9/11] has been, if you don't want the U.S. to mess with you, get nuclear weapons."