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Vacation and North Korea

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As I write I am on vacation.  North Korean nukes and ICBMs have just become reality.  Yesterday 16 brave Marines died in service to their nation and I visited the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  I stood in a place where enough nuclear fire power could be launched to destroy 50 cities roughly the size of Columbus, OH or Indianapolis, IN.  By sheer happenstance, my guide for the tour of the launch control installation was a park service ranger, retired from the United States Air Force, that had served 7 years as a commander in one of the underground launch control centers.  His knowledge was, needless to say, immense, but his service to our nation stunning.

While we were still on the surface, the first thing he pointed out was that the control bunker was only 30 feet deep and that the average 10 megaton thermonuclear device made a crater 300 feet deep.  In so many words he told us that his mission, had it actually materialized. was a suicide mission.  Such was the nature of the MAD doctrine – they launched theirs, we launched ours, we targeted their nuclear capability, they targeted ours, and the men in the bunkers representing the best technology available at the time of construction died.  In the meantime his family, living some 80 or so miles away in a city of moderate size, enjoyed no such protection and would have likely died from the marginal effects of the blast that took our guide away instantaneously.

The “Missileers” were a small, but immensely brave, group of men and women serving our nation.  This was not glamorous duty – certainly more cerebral, less kinetic, and far less publicized than many other forms of military duty, it remained incredibly dangerous.  It was extremely rigorous duty – for training accidents could not be tolerated, the consequences were simply too grave.  Honor is due.

We tend not to think about it, but there are still 400 missiles, far more advanced in propulsion and control technology even if with less destructive force than those I saw yesterday, still on duty.  Capable of far more destruction than those I saw yesterday, our current missiles are purposefully retarded under the terms of various treaties with the former Soviet Union and its progeny.  It would seem that times are less dangerous than they were when the decommissioned missile field I visited was on full time alert, but with North Korea’s recent demonstration of intercontinental capability I have spent the last 24 hours or so wondering if they really are.

There were, and are, secrets about our nuclear missile capabilities, mostly in command and control – we do not want people to be able to interfere with those operations in any way.  But to anyone that cares to look there are no secrets about what we can do with those missiles.  Their existence and readiness is easily verifiable.  That’s what made the MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) doctrine work. Nonetheless, would such a thing deter someone like Kim Jong Un?  The very nature of his nation demonstrates his total disregard for his own populace.

We, on the other hand, are immensely restrained in the use of our nuclear capability against North Korea.  The largest population center of our staunch ally South Korea is far, far closer to North Korea and our potential targets than was the family of my guide/former Missileer of yesterday’s family to his duty station.  Military action, nuclear or otherwise, against North Korea is highly problematic.

But it is also important to realize that the Soviet Union played the MAD game a bit differently than we did.   We know that Russia currently uses disinformation extensively.  And while the current “fake news” mania, in an orgy of media self-justification, is making actual internet-based research into the use of disinformation during the Cold War difficult to come by, most of the stuff I have read since the fall of the Soviet Union has indicated that their nuclear capabilities were not nearly as capable we were lead to believe.  In other words MAD worked somewhat asymmetrically; we held an unbelievably strong hand and they played a bluff with extraordinary skill.

By our nature, Americans are typically lousy liars.  That’s why, fascinated by poker as we are judging from its presence on television, we also tend to look a bit askance at serious poker players.  Everybody seems to enjoy it occasionally and for low-stakes fun, but we are inherently suspicious of those that play the game for a living.  As a reflection of our general culture, the use of disinformation as a tool of statecraft seems inimical to who we are.  The higher the stakes the more that seems to be the case.  But in the very high stakes game we now find ourselves in with North Korea I cannot help but wonder if such is not the best weapon in our arsenal.

What if Kim Jong Un thinks we would act in a totally unrestrained manner – that we are willing to do anything from tightly targeted assassination to the use of nuclear weapons that would quite likely destroy much of South Korea’s population and industrial capability?  What if the South Koreans joined us in this bluff?

It seems the only reliable motivation for Kim Jong Un is retaining power.  What would he do if he thought we would utterly destroy that over which he has power, regardless of cost to ourselves or our allies?  Yes, he has nuclear weapons and can hurt us severely, but he cannot destroy us.  We most certainly can destroy him – several times over – the only thing that restrains us from doing so is self-restraint. What if he thought we had none?


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