So, has North Korea’s Sputnik moment arrived at last?

After Pyongyang’s first successful space launch in December, its third nuclear test in February, and a barrage of threats — including the recent matter of a map purporting to show targets in the United States – at least some Americans do seem to be getting the intended message, or some sort of message. The Pew Research Center’s recent poll of U.S. adults “finds that 56% say the government should take North Korea’s threats to use nuclear missiles against the U.S. very seriously.”

Pew polled the public before Rep. Doug Lamborn took advantage of an apparent error in classification to reveal the Defense Intelligence Agency’s bottom line on North Korean nuclear-armed missiles (“D.I.A. assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles; however the reliability will be low”).  The poll also predates efforts clarify the situation by the Pentagon (“it would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed, or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage”) and Director of National Intelligence (“North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile“).

All clear? Pretty much. But actions speak louder than carefully hedged words. Judging by the U.S. government’s response to North Korea’s ICBM development program – to double down on its star-crossed Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program – it’s clear that DoD wishes to be seen as taking no chances. (General Dempsey made this very clear, telling Congress that the the third stage of the Unha “was kind of the breakthrough for the North Koreans. … now that they have that third-stage technology apparently under control, it could very well migrate to the KN-08.”)

It’s quite understandable that people are spooked. The only mystery is why it’s taken so long.

So, after taking all this in, what does it amount to? Where should we turn for a little clarity? Let’s try a little common sense and a little context.

Keep your decomposure

As a first step, we might try breaking the issue down into constituent parts to establish what we know and don’t know. A few questions come immediately to mind.

First, what sort of nuclear weapons do the North Koreans have? Can they put them on missiles?

Second, what sort of missiles do the North Koreans have? Can they reach the United States?

Third, why are the North Koreans making threats to use nuclear weapons, and should we take those threats seriously?

I could answer all of these questions by saying, “I don’t know for sure.” The ex-White House WMD Czar (can a czar resign or must he abdicate?) told the New York Times about as much concerning question #1:

“The situation is that there is so little direct evidence that I don’t think it’s possible to come to a firm conclusion on whether or not they currently have a nuclear warhead that can be delivered by missile,” said Gary Samore, who until early this year served as President Obama’s coordinator for weapons of mass destruction, “or how far away they are from getting there.”

None of which explains why the U.S. government is slapping down a cool billion for some new toys in Alaska. Perhaps they’re erring on the side of caution. That’s what defense planners are supposed to do, after all. (One might wish for more effective forms of caution.)

Still, we can probably do slightly better than “I don’t know.” Shall we try it? Let’s begin.

Not rocket science

First, what sort of nuclear weapons do the North Koreans have? Can they put them on missiles?

I don’t know for sure… but they’ve tested three nuclear devices so far. Even in the 1940s, it was possible to build working, air-deliverable nuclear weapons based on less experience than that. Missile-deliverable weapons don’t necessarily take much more. In the 1960s, China conducted its fourth nuclear test by putting it on a missile and shooting it at the test site. And it’s no longer the 1960s.

That’s the short version. For the long version, try here.

Second, what sort of missiles do the North Koreans have? Can they reach the United States?

I don’t know for sure… but last December, they put an object into low-earth orbit. If you think North Korea lacks the basic capabilities to build long-range missiles, guess again. A space launcher is not exactly the same thing, but it’s most of the way there.

That doesn’t tell us exactly where the KN-08 mobile ICBM program stands; the KN-08 hasn’t been flight-tested. Neither has the Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile, although that might change at any time.

It is helpful to note what ADM James Winnefield said last month: “we believe the KN-08 probably does have the range to reach the United States… our assessment of where it exists in its lifetime is something that would remain classified.”

While we’re on the subject, it would be even more helpful if DoD would share a little more information than that.

Third, why are the North Koreans making threats to use nuclear weapons, and should we take those threats seriously?

I don’t know for sure… but it might have something to do with the fact that the U.S. and South Korea have a very serious conventional advantage.  And then there is the persistent belief that the U.S. has a habit of invading small countries it considers enemies.  Don’t ask me – ask them.

So, no, North Korea is not Imperial Japan. And no, they are not simply “following one threatening move with another,” unless you count U.S.-South Korean joint exercises and bomber overflights as “threatening moves,” which, you know, you probably should.

That’s not to say that Kim Jong-un is a poor, misunderstood, defensively minded soul worthy of anyone’s sympathy. The North Koreans aren’t content with simple deterrence, and take nuclear weapons as a license to try to bully the South Koreans. Who in turn have decided to push back hard with threats of their own. Do we really need to find out how this story ends?

Secretary of State John Kerry said it well enough the other day in Seoul:

The greatest danger here, we all agree, is for a mistake. The greatest danger is that something happens and there’s a response to that something, and then things somehow inadvertently were to get out of control.

What is to be done?

A few conclusions flow from these observations. Tentative ones, if you insist, but I feel fairly sure of them.

First, don’t panic and call for bombing raids. It’s only cause for shame and regret later.

Second, don’t make the opposite mistake and insist that the public is ignorant, there’s no threat, and so forth. Time marches on. What may not be ready today will be ready tomorrow.

Third, it would help if the U.S. government would get its message on the North Korea threat straight. Ignorance can breed unreasoning fear, so divulging more information might not be a bad idea. Instead of waiting for Sputnik, try setting public expectations a little.  Gates did this with the KN-08 and it worked pretty well.

Fourth, it’s past time to look for ways to de-escalate the situation on the Peninsula.

I could go on. And I probably will. After the next missile or nuclear test, maybe.