After listening to experts describe the threat posed by North Korea and its nuclear arsenal, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, paused amid a Capitol Hill hearing earlier this week and made a suggestion.
“We ought to have civil defense in this country,” said Sherman during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Some of us are old enough to remember when we had civil defense and we were under our desks.”
The congressman wasn’t calling for an immediate return to the “duck and cover” days of the Cold War. But his statement reflects heightened alarm among members of Congress – especially those from the West Coast – over North Korea’s continuing nuclear tests and advances in missile technology.
In the last year alone, North Korea has conducted 20 missile tests and two nuclear tests. That’s a marked annual increase from the 42 missile tests and two nuclear tests of the previous seven years, according to Victor Cha, a Korea specialist with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Cha and other experts say it is highly likely that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un will launch another intercontinental ballistic missile this year, in part to gauge the response from President Donald Trump. While some of North Korea’s missile tests have ended in failure, the regime seems to be learning from each launch to improve its capability.
Many arms control specialists believe that, by 2020, North Korea could have the capacity to launch a miniaturized nuclear device on an ICBM, with the range to strike at least the West Coast. It might even have that capability sooner.
“The difficulty here is the lack of visibility into North Korea’s nuclear program. It’s a black hole,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a Korea researcher who previously worked in the Treasury Department, the U.S. agency tasked with enforcing sanctions on Pyongyang.
North Korea remains one of the world’s most closeted countries, and international inspectors haven’t had even partial access to its nuclear facilities since 2009.
To slow North Korea’s nuclear advances, the United Nations has imposed increasingly harsh sanctions. Those sanctions have deprived Pyongyang of hard cash but have received spotty enforcement, especially by China, which is wary of squeezing North Korea too hard. Within Congress, there is increasing recognition that North Korea has gotten short shrift amid the intense foreign policy attention on the Islamic State, Iran and the Middle East.
“Are we as focused on this threat as we should be? If you look over the last 10 years, the answer is clearly no,” Ruggiero, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, said in an interview. “We have not focused on that threat, and it has continued to grow.”
Several members of Congress from the West Coast are aiming a spotlight at North Korea, particularly Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from Southern California who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. On Tuesday, Royce led a hearing examining how the United States and its allies could further squeeze North Korea financially and possibly slow its nuclear weapons program.
Royce said he was particularly concerned about North Korea’s bomb miniaturization efforts, along with one of its missile tests last year from a submarine. “That is what has got our attention,” Royce said. “At this point it is clear that very, very soon, North Korea is going to be able to target all 50 states in the United States, as well as target our allies.”
Some analysts doubt that North Korea, as it advances its weapons systems, would launch a first strike on the United States or its allies. Kim is pursuing the weapons program, they say, as a deterrent to a U.S. attack and also to enhance his stature at home.
Yet U.S. officials feel compelled to remind Pyongyang what would happen if it were to strike first. “Any attack on the United States, or our allies, will be defeated, and any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a response that would be effective and overwhelming,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last week during a visit to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
Given the failure to slow North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, some Asia specialists say the United States should consider a new strategy, attempting to negotiate with Pyongyang on a freeze, or “cap,” in missile and weapons development. Others say such a move would be a disaster, even if Kim abided by a freeze.
“Agreeing to a cap means the U.S. accepts North Korea as a nuclear weapons state for the indefinite future, which would destroy our credibility not only with our allies but with other rogue regimes,” said Sue Mi Terry, a Korea analyst with the consulting firm Bower Group Asia, who testified at Tuesday’s hearing. She added that the U.S. must keep highlighting North Korea’s human rights abuses while trying to reach out to elites in Pyongyang susceptible to defection.
Last year, Royce and Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democrat from New York who’s the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, led passage of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, an attempt to stanch the outside cash that flows into North Korea, bolstering the regime.
Such laws, however, depend on the capacity and commitment of the U.S. Treasury Department to pursue alleged violators. Last year, federal prosecutors charged four Chinese businesspeople and a Chinese company with conspiring to create a web of shell companies to evade U.S. economic sanctions and funnel money to North Korea. But critics have questioned why the Treasury Department didn’t also hold Chinese banks accountable for their role in creating the shell companies.
“The fact that a Chinese bank has not been punished for that is quite appalling,” said Ruggiero.
He and other analysts have criticized the Obama administration, saying it was inconsistent in the region. While Obama once counseled a policy of “strategic patience” with Pyongyang, he left office reportedly advising Trump that nuclear North Korea should be the new president’s top foreign priority.
How Trump will handle Korean affairs remains a mystery. When Kim hinted in a New Year’s speech that North Korea might test another missile, Trump responded with one of his trademark Twitter blasts: “It won’t happen!”
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
Trump sent mixed messages during the presidential campaign on his support for Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, who face an immediate threat from North Korea missiles. Mattis’ trip to Asia last week – the first foreign trip by a Trump Cabinet member – was widely seen as an attempt to ease allies’ concerns about the new president.
Sherman, a Democrat from Northridge, raised the possibility of restarting “civil defense” in the context of raising awareness about North Korea’s actions, including its reported sharing of nuclear technologies with Iran and other regimes.
“We have a foreign policy establishment that will not admit to the American people that it (deterrence) may fail to prevent us from being hit,” he said. “We could prepare to minimize casualties. We won’t, because that means we’d have to admit that there’s the possibility we will face casualties.”