War on Korean Peninsula unlikely, despite strong words from both sides

Lawmakers discussed a report from the Defense Intelligence Agency on Thursday suggesting that North Korea may have the ability to equip a missile with a nuclear warhead:

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) read what he said was an unclassified section of the DIA report while questioning Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a session of the House Armed Services Committee. Lamborn said the DIA had concluded “with moderate confidence” that Pyongyang “has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however, the reliability will be low.” . . .

Lamborn, who failed to draw a substantive response from Dempsey, said in an interview after the hearing that he chose to slip the assessment into the public domain because he worries the Obama administration is not investing enough in missile defense.

“My whole goal in bringing this to light was to make sure we don’t cut missile defense spending,” the congressman said. (Read the complete article by Anne Gearan here.)

Other U.S. intelligence agencies disagree on whether Pyongyang has been able to build a bomb small enough to fit on a missile, and the South Korean military does not believe it has. Max Fisher summarizes the publicly available data at WorldViews:

North Korea has to tick two big boxes before it can have a nuclear warhead that could hit the U.S. The first is miniaturizing a warhead, which this DIA report seems to think the country may have done. The second is building a missile capable of accurately hitting the U.S., which North Korea has not done. Unlike the warheads, which can be tested underground, missiles have to be tested right out in the open before they can be made to work properly, and North Korea has so far not done this.

North Korea tested a nuclear weapon in February, prompting additional sanctions from the United Nations, and Kim Jong Un’s regime has been threatening the South and the United States repeatedly for several weeks. Chico Harlan reports that the North has succeeded in getting the attention of the world’s Internet users:

In recent days, Google search interest in North Korea has spiked: Seven times more people searched for information about North Korea in March than at the previous high point of interest, October 2006, when the state successfully conducted a nuclear test. Within the United States, North Korea was Twitter’s No. 3 trending topic for the week ending April 4, behind Easter and Good Friday.

Analysts say the surging interest plays into North Korea’s hands, amplifying the sense of crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The North caters to the Web by using social media and updating its state-run news agency Web site several times a day — fresh rhetoric for every news cycle, in what South Korea’s national security chief called a “headline campaign.”

For more coverage of developments on the Korean Peninsula, continue reading here.

In Seoul, meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned the North on Friday that the United States and its allies would win any war, Gearan reports:

“Kim Jong Un needs to understand, as I think he probably does, what the outcome of the conflict would be,” Kerry said in an unmistakable reference to the overwhelming military might of the United States. . .

Kerry held crisis talks Friday with South Korea. He heads to Beijing on Saturday to lobby for stronger efforts by China to rein in its reclusive ally. The chief U.S. diplomat on Sunday will visit Japan, which, like South Korea, is protected by an American guarantee of military protection should North Korea launch an Asian war.

The chance of a war, however, is much lower than some people think, argues Fisher. He analyzes a poll from the Pew Research Center:

The ... poll found that 47 percent of Americans think that North Korea is capable of launching a nuclear missile that can hit the United States, which is false. . .

Pew also found that 47 percent of Americans believe North Korea’s leadership is willing to follow through on its threat to launch a nuclear missile at the United States. That number actually goes way up among people who say they are paying close attention to the story: 59 percent of those believe the Kim Jong Un regime is willing to attack the United States with a nuclear missile.

The question of the Kim regime’s willingness is obviously more complicated and less knowable, but it’s worth noting that virtually all North Korea analysts believe that the country has no intent of following through on its threats. Theories for North Korea’s rhetoric vary — some say Kim is seeking concessions from the West, others that he’s working to rally his own military’s support — but you will be very hard pressed to find a North Korea analyst who shares the view of 59 percent of Americans that North Korea is willing to launch a nuclear warhead at America. (Read the rest of the post here.)

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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