[Date Prev][Date Next]
[cdn-nucl-l] " Washington Faces Quandary in North Korea "
Washington Faces Quandary in North Korea
Aviation Week & Space Technology, 10/16/2006, page 32
David A. Fulghum and Amy Butler, Washington, Neelam Mathews, New Delhi
With ground troops overcommitted, Washington faces quandary in North Korea
Printed headline: What's Plan B?
The U.S. has stymied itself politically and militarily in any response to
North Korea's nuclear test by alienating its allies and involving itself in
prolonged fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the result is foes
emboldened to develop nuclear weapons.
So say several former top Air Force and intelligence officials. They contend
the U.S. military response is muted not because it's inappropriate, but
because there are not enough ground troops available to back up air strikes
and a naval blockade of North Korea, they contend.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues its efforts to validate the isolated nation's
claim that it demonstrated the ability to build and detonate a
plutonium-based weapon of mass destruction.
The test last week is the first time that results from a nation's announced
initial nuclear test were so unclear, thereby leaving doubts about North
Korea's entry into the elite nuclear club. As analysis of the Oct. 9 test
continues, the Bush administration is urging China to join the chorus of
nations calling for tough sanctions against Pyongyang.
U.S. Navy electronic attack aircraft capable of monitoring encrypted and
hidden wireless communications, as well as Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint
aircraft, which have long-range electronic intercept and surveillance
capabilities, deployed to the areas off North Korea, as did aircraft from
Japan and the U.S. capable of detecting radioactive debris and gases that
likely would be released by a nuclear test.
AMONG THEM ARE the remaining two WC-135W Constant Phoenix sniffer aircraft,
now attached to the secretive 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, Neb. The 55th--which
has under its command many of the Air Force's most exotic surveillance,
electronic attack and intelligence-gathering aircraft--is part of the 8th
Air Force, which is leading the service's network-centric transformation
Air samples taken by those aircraft could take up to a week to analyze, says
Peter Huessy, president and CEO of Geostrategic Analysis in Washington and a
longtime analyst of nuclear proliferation issues and ballistic missile
systems. This prolongs the waiting game as intelligence officials try to
determine what did and did not take place in North Korea. Particulates from
the test are expected to take several days to make their way into the air
and would have to move east at altitudes where aircraft can capture samples.
"Right now there's no conclusive evidence of what happened," a U.S.
intelligence official says.
"There aren't any additional bombers being deployed to Guam or Navy ships
setting up a blockade yet," says a former Air Force chief of staff, although
some deployments are being considered. "I think North Korea has looked at
the fact that [U.S. ground forces] are bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq,
and that we haven't been able to withdraw and reconstitute them. They know
that the U.S. can attack their missile and nuclear test sites, but that
could trigger an attack on South Korea."
Compounding any weakness in ground forces, Seoul--South Korea's capital,
population center, and one of Asia's major economic engines--is within range
of North Korea's artillery.
"IT'S A DIFFICULT, an awful military problem made worse by the accident of
geography," say Merrill McPeak, another former Air Force chief of staff. "We
looked at taking out those guns. They are tough problems even for precision
munitions. They are in tunnels and on reverse slopes. They shoot and scoot
back out of sight. Over a period of days we could silence them, but Seoul
would be pounded and with it would evaporate the wealth of South Korea."
However, others contend that an air attack may be the only option to keep
North Korea from selling fissionable material and possibly nuclear weapons
to other countries. More worrisome are coalitions of state and non-state
groups such as Iran and Hezbollah, a combination that proved formidable and
adept with advanced technologies during the recent fighting in Lebanon and
"It might be practical, although it would be a big war, to use airpower
against them effectively," says R. James Woolsey, Jr., former director of
central intelligence. "I don't say it's likely or absolutely unavoidable,
but I do think there's only one way to keep North Korea from not only having
but selling fissionable material to terrorist groups. Only the use of force
or the awakening of the Chinese government can keep this from happening.
This is not a country with a modern military. It has about one squadron of
relatively modern [fighter] aircraft and very flimsy air defenses."
U.S. intelligence officials say that so far, despite some "new cockiness"
among North Korean border guards, there's no military buildup or
concentration of forces.
The two retired generals contend that the U.S. has made several
miscalculations. It overestimated the ability of the Chinese to pressure the
North Koreans. It didn't calculate that Iran and North Korea would be
emboldened by the U.S. being tied down militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Also, the U.S. didn't anticipate the depth of alarm the test would trigger
in Japan, which may feel forced to expand its military capabilities--which,
in turn, would worry China.
"It's a real mess," the first retired general says. "I think about what our
response could be and I come up empty. Our hands are tied. If we had taken
out their missile launch sites before the July tests, that might have made
our point about not going ahead with the nuclear tests. But we didn't act,
so now we're faced with the consequences."
"We don't have options," McPeak agrees. "We can't take out the interesting
targets without the risk that it will escalate to a ground conflict of some
kind. North Korea's strength is short-range, close-contact combat action on
the ground. The South Korean forces are good and can defend themselves, but
the geography is so terrible that we would be pushed some distance down the
peninsula. We're in a [military/diplomatic] trap. We have to get out
carefully so we don't do more damage. Restoring our international position
is the first step."
ADM. WILLIAM FALLON, chief of all U.S. military forces in the Pacific, says
the North Koreans would be hard pressed to sustain a military push into
South Korea. Although the North could inflict many casualties with
artillery, he says their military lacks resources for an extended fight.
"They've got a lot of work to do," to manage a major offensive against the
south, he says.
The only diplomatic option, says Huessy, is to invoke tough sanctions to
squeeze out the resources available to the North Korean government. Huessy
says China, North Korea's closest trading ally, needs to "either get real or
not get real," by deciding whether to step up sanctions or back off. There's
no middle ground at this point, he says. China says it backs sanctions, but
not military action.
What appears to be slowing and shaping the response of the U.S. and other
countries is the ambiguity of the North Korean test. Early in the week, it
still wasn't apparent that it was even a nuclear test. Seismic data
indicated a 3.8-4.2 Richter-scale reading, which equates to detonation of
one kiloton or less of conventional explosives. Russian politicians,
apparently anticipating a larger test, originally announced it as a
U.S. intelligence officials say the yield may have been as low as an
equivalent 200-300 tons of conventional explosives. Since the North Koreans
had indicated a 4-kiloton test, "although they won't admit it, it didn't
work the way they thought; so they may test again," a Pentagon-based
official says. However, whether the North Koreans will continue the fast
pace of the July missile firings and the first weapons test, "we have no
Analysts see three likely explanations for the small explosion. It was a
conventional test modeling a nuclear explosion. It was the test of a small
nuclear device designed to trigger a larger hydrogen bomb. Or it was a test
of a flawed device that failed to compress a few kilograms of plutonium at a
rate fast or symmetrical enough to produce the planned nuclear explosion.
Analysts variously estimate that North Korea has enough plutonium for 8-13
nuclear devices. They also are still examining seismic evidence.
"There' a difference between an earthquake and an explosion," says Jeffrey
Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives at George
Washington University. Other analysts say there also is a distinguishable
difference in the rise time of conventional and nuclear blasts. "The seismic
signals look different," he says. However, "it's hard to distinguish the
differences in explosions at low levels. Other countries that acknowledged
detonating nuclear devices had a larger and unambiguous first test. The
North Korean leadership wouldn't want it to be ambiguous; so, they might
want to conduct a second test."
There are other clues to be sifted through.
"If [the device] was not buried deeply, there could be radioactive gas
vents," says John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. Also, "the rise
times [of the seismic signals] associated with a nuclear explosion are
different." Scientists have determined that an increase in rise time is
commonly observed in underground nuclear tests. However, physical phenomena,
including the speed at which shock waves move, are affected by the geology
and usually require about 1-kiloton yield.
"Also, if the blast is not too deep, there could be a subsidence crater," he
says. "We didn't have any trouble seeing [evidence] of the Indian test. It
would be readily apparent in commercial imagery. You won't see that with a
However, even a nuclear explosion may or may not produce a crater. A
vertical shaft test probably would leave tell-tale signs on the surface.
However, a blast in a horizontal shaft dug under a mountain of very hard
Jurassic granite would not. That last is the geology of the suspected site
near the city of Kilju in northeast North Korea. South Korean intelligence
officials identified an explosion as taking place at Hwaderi, near Kilju, at
10:36 a.m. local time on Oct. 9.
Some analysts have suggested that among the tests conducted in Pakistan in
1998, at least one was carried out on behalf of Pyongyang. Pakistan is known
to have passed nuclear data to Libya and Iran, as well as to North Korea.
Huessy says officials from Iran attended the recent nuclear test and likely
also attended the salvo of ballistic missile tests this summer in North
Pakistan's foreign ministry said the test could spark a proliferation chain
reaction. "This will be a destabilizing development for the region," said
ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam in an Islamabad news conference. However,
she disavowed any linkage to Pakistani nuclear technology that was passed to
North Korea by the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
"The North Korean program is plutonium-based and Pakistan's is mainly
IN INDIA, THERE IS a rising concern that North Korea's test may endanger
passage of the U.S-India civil nuclear deal.
Brahma Chellaney, a defense strategist for India's Center for Policy
Research, says the test would further complicate the already troubled
U.S-India nuclear deal and additionally alienate its constituency in
Washington, which had been warning that the deal with India could fall afoul
of the international nonproliferation regime.
"The deal will now face greater difficulties in clearing hurdles both on
Capitol Hill and in the 45-nation Nuclear Suppliers' Group," say Chellaney.
"Critics have got a fresh handle to warn against applying different
standards to the proliferation cases."
The U.S. Senate recessed last month without voting on the India-U.S nuclear
cooperation bill. If the India legislation is not finished before a fresh
U.S. Congress takes office early next year, all procedural formalities
completed so far become invalid and the entire process will have to be
However, both governments hope that the Senate could take up this bill
around Nov. 13, when its brief "lame duck" session begins.
No virus found in this outgoing message.
Checked by AVG Free Edition.
Version: 7.1.408 / Virus Database: 268.13.11/496 - Release Date: 10/24/2006