Popular Mechanics comes through with a rundown of whether we should be taking North Korea’s recent threats seriously, the ways they are and aren’t different than previous decades of North Korean threats, and how we know what we know about their missile program. The short version: North Korea’s nuclear program is probably about where France’s was in the 1960s, and might be two years away from being able to hit the west coast of the U.S. with something small.
That’s not to say they necessarily would, but it changes the calculus — and not only for us. As aerospace engineer John Schilling puts it:
Most every credible war plan against North Korea, offensive or defensive, hinges on the alliance of the United States, South Korea, and Japan (even if the Japanese don’t contribute combat forces, their ports and airbases are critical for logistical support). Right now, North Korea can directly threaten South Korea and Japan with nuclear attack, but the United States can stand back at a safe distance and promise massive retaliation against the North at essentially no cost or risk. With ICBMs as well as shorter-ranged missiles, North Korea can separately deter each member of the alliance, and cause each member of the alliance to doubt the commitment of the others. Would the United States really risk San Francisco to avenge Tokyo?
Coupled with a bit of diplomacy, this could enable North Korea to break one or two partners loose from the alliance on the grounds that their cities are at risk in a fight that maybe isn’t their top priority, and so stop a war that would otherwise topple the North Korean regime.
That may explain, to some extent, why China is starting to apply pressure on North Korea. China’s not part of that Japan-S.Korea-U.S. defense alliance, but the stability of that partnership has been good for the region.