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North Korea poses an urgent challenge, but don’t kiss Alaska goodbye just yet

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 6, 2017
  • Published July 6, 2017

The North Korean missile launch this week does not really mean "KISS YOUR ALASKA GOODBYE," as the New York Post declared on its front page Wednesday.

It's what you'd expect from the tabloid editors who once gave the world "HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR," and marked July Fourth with '"CHRIS CRISPY," about the beach-loving governor of New Jersey.

Absent the sarcasm, news headlines about Alaska falling within the range of North Korea's missiles landed all over the place after the July Fourth launch. The Alaska Dispatch News version, "N. Korea tests missile that could hit Alaska," fell into the no-nonsense category, while the Honolulu Star-Advertiser  hit its readers with, "Hawaii, Alaska within reach of North Korean missile."

It's geography. Alaska is closer to North Korea than the West Coast, and the statement is both accurate and worrisome, as is the reality we try not to think about — that unimaginable numbers of Russian and Chinese missiles can wipe out every place in the U.S. many times over.

About North Korea, it is a giant leap to conclude that the state with the lowest population density somehow would top the target list for the Supreme Leader if and when he launches the Kim dynasty farewell tour.

The front page of the New York Post Wednesday overstates the case.

There are tens of millions of people on the Korean Peninsula and Japan whose lives could be instantly placed at risk by military miscalculation. This is the gravest threat posed by North Korea and how the Trump administration chooses to respond.

The hypothetical reach of North Korean technology is "symbolic of the changing threat," though Alaska is an unlikely target, said David Wright, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who has written extensively on arms control.

"I suppose if there were a military attack on North Korea, it might decide to fire something at Alaska as a way of responding against U.S. territory if that's all it could hit," he said.

"But even in that case, it's more likely to launch against U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan with its short-range missiles, which have sufficient range, are more reliable, and more accurate. That's why I think the U.S. will be deterred from attacking," he said.

There is a complicated history about Alaska and the potential missile threat from North Korea, most of which has to do with geography and the lobbying that led to the missile defense system at Fort Greely.

In 1996, Sen. Ted Stevens said Alaskans were worried about a potential missile attack and he scoffed at military planners who said North Korea wouldn't be a big threat until 2010. He said the military brass should go to Anchorage.

"I think the man or woman on the street in Alaska knows the developments in North Korea better than the Pentagon," he said.

The Pentagon said it could base a missile defense system in North Dakota and comply with a treaty with Russia, but the planners had to admit the anti-missile missiles would not offer protection to the westernmost Aleutian Islands or Hawaii.

The system we have today is mainly in Alaska because Stevens and the man he called his brother — Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye — had great control over the military budget and they wanted full coverage of every island in every state.

In 2006, when North Korea conducted missile tests on the Fourth of July to irritate the Bush administration, Stevens said the missile defense system with interceptors buried at Fort Greely would have launched against the Korean missiles had they come anywhere near the United States.

"We were ready to fire," Stevens said, adding that he wanted more missiles at Fort Greely and the 2006 incident would bolster the case.

Whether the system and its promise of "limited defense" would have worked is another matter, though billions have been spent in the last two decades and no one has ever explained what "limited" means.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, who now holds the seat once occupied by Stevens, called again this week to expand missile defense in response to the North Korean test.

"Now more than ever, it's imperative for Alaskans and the rest of the nation that we be prepared. That's why I recently introduced a bill – the majority of which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act passed out of committee last week – that will significantly boost our missile defense capabilities and keep America safe," Sullivan said on Facebook.

Now more than ever, it's imperative to know what level of safety has been purchased with tens of billions expended so far. And the costs and benefits about what additional safety can be purchased, and how this particular risk — one in which the culprit is instantly identified and subject to destruction — ranks against the wide range of other nuclear threats that involve subterfuge.

This has been missing from Sullivan's repeated statements about missile defense, along with an acknowledgement that a greater emphasis on diplomacy is essential if we want to "keep America safe."

He introduced a bill in May that called for adding 14 missiles to the defense site at Fort Greely,  as well as creating new facilities elsewhere and adding a storage site for 14 missiles.

The military contractors who stand to profit from building the hardware are the biggest proponents of expansion, which is reason enough to be skeptical.

What has never been established is the probability of success or failure.

There is security and then there is a false sense of security.  We have no way of knowing where the former ends and the latter begins.

The underground missiles at Fort Greely are not topped with explosives, but with a device about two feet wide that weighs about 150 pounds. It is designed to destroy an incoming missile high above the atmosphere colliding with the force of impact at 15,000 mph. Miss it by a second and you miss it by miles.

In the 1990s, some people called these "smart rocks." Given the cost of smart rocks, it no wonder the term never caught on. Instead we have the  "exoatmospheric kill vehicle," built by Raytheon, ready to be launched from Fort Greely.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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