How serious is the North Korean weapons threat?

The missile North Korea fired into the Sea of Japan on Sunday caused the United Nations Security Council to hold a closed-door meeting to discuss the ramifications. While the missiles Pyongyang is testing do not carry munitions, they do represent a danger, said George Mason University’s Ming Wan, a professor of East Asia security and Sino-Japanese relations at George Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

The idea of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un developing a missile that can carry a nuclear warhead and potentially strike U.S. bases in Japan is a serious threat, he said.

“Whether they would do it is a different matter,” he added. “That would be suicide. The United States has the capacity to do preemptive strikes, though that would risk Seoul and millions of other South Koreans threatened by North Korea's conventional weapons.”

In short, Wan concluded, “There are no easy options.”

The hard part is planning for whatever North Korea is contemplating.

“I'm not sure that defense planners and policymakers are as concerned about North Korea's current capabilities as they are about its intentions and future capabilities,” said Mason professor Michael Hunzeker, an expert in international security and military innovation at the Schar School. “My sense is that Kim Jong Il (Kim Jong Un’s father) was willing to use his nuclear program as a bargaining chip of sorts. However, under Kim Jong Un the program seems to have moved to the center of North Korea's security strategy.”

Beyond this basic shift, there are a lot of unknowns, Hunzeker said.

“Is the regime pursuing an arsenal to better secure itself from invasion, or does it plan to use its arsenal to threaten other countries to change their policies and actions on a wide range of issues?” he said. “How quickly will its technical capabilities—ballistic missile range and accuracy, ability to miniaturize a warhead, speed at which it can enrich uranium and produce plutonium—allow it to realize its strategic ambitions?”

Managing and navigating the uncertainty around those questions is the short-term challenge, Hunzeker said. “Our experts do not necessarily agree on the answers to these questions. Nor do our allies. Nor do other regional stakeholders. Worse yet, by the time we have clarity on what North Korea intends to do with its arsenal, and how quickly it will develop the technological wherewithal, it may be too late to do anything about it.”

Some defense planners and policymakers may feel pressured into taking preemptive military action, he added.

Ming Wan can be reached at mwan@gmu.edu and 703-993-2955.

Michael Hunzeker can be reached at mhunzeke@gmu.edu.

For more information, contact Buzz McClain at 703-727-0230 or bmcclai2@gmu.edu.