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North Korea showed off a lot of missiles. What might be its targets?

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 5/18/2017 Bonnie Berkowitz, Laris Karklis and Tim Meko

Experts assumed Kim Jong Un had the capability to launch nuclear weapons even before last weekend’s test flight of a new missile that, on a normal, flatter trajectory, would have been capable of reaching Guam. But they don’t think he wants to fire them randomly.

“This notion that the program is unsophisticated is no longer true, and I don’t think the strategy is unsophisticated, either,” said Vipin Narang, an MIT professor who has written two books about nuclear strategy.

Narang said Kim’s blueprint appears to be derived from the playbooks of other countries that developed nuclear weapons, including Pakistan. The short version: repel and deter. He would hope to have enough nuclear firepower to repel a conventional attack from South Korea while deterring a game-ending nuclear retaliation by the United States.

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“The objective is to preserve the regime, right?” said Narang. “You really have to stop the invasion. And if you think you need nuclear weapons to do that . . . how do you deal with the fact that the U.S. is going to make you a smoldering, radioactive hole at the end of that? Well, if you can hold American homeland targets at risk, that might induce caution.”

It is a risky strategy, but not many options are available to a small country against a superpower. And it explains why Kim appears to be trying to build a diverse nuclear arsenal that is capable of striking targets as near as the South Korean border and as far away as the U.S. mainland.

Close targets: U.S. bases near Seoul

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The North Koreans like their chances of repelling a South Korean invasion with conventional rather than nuclear weapons, said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. It is the U.S. forces in the region that worry them.

“The nuclear weapons are going to be targeted at ports and airfields and probably some army bases where U.S. forces are,” he said. “What they actually target, of course, is a little bit harder to guess.”

One of those bases, Yongsan Garrison, is in downtown Seoul. A nuclear device detonated there could destroy the city, possibly including the Blue House, South Korea’s equivalent of the White House, which sits on a mountain in the north part.

Lewis said two army bases, Camp Casey and Camp Humphreys, are probably high on the list. Camp Humphreys in particular is expanding rapidly as American forces in South Korea consolidate there. Other likely targets could be army camps Red Cloud and Market and Air Force bases Osan and Kunsan.

A bit farther away: Southeastern Korea

Sometimes Kim makes his intentions obvious.

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In response to a port call by the USS Ohio to Busan, which the North Koreans denounced in their media, North Korea shot a missile into the Sea of Japan. Photos released by North Korean media included a map showing that the missile’s landing point was the same distance from its launch point as the port city of Busan. A pointed statement released with the photos made it clear that the exercise was a practice shot at Busan.

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Kim would want to disable anything in South Korea that would hamper the Americans’ ability to support the invasion, Lewis said, such as a trio of bases around Daegu.

Another high-profile target could be the new Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), which the United States recently deployed to defend its Korean bases from incoming missiles.

The wider region: Japan and others

The sites Kim would be most concerned about in the rest of northeast Asia are pretty straightforward, Lewis said. That includes three U.S. bases in metropolitan Tokyo. A strike there would devastate parts of the city.

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Other probable strikes would aim to cripple Kadena and Futenma, two air bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa, which houses more than 27,000 U.S. troops at a cluster of installations. Okinawa, because of its central location in the region, is key to U.S. military in East Asia.

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Last month, the North Koreans fired four missiles that analysts say were practice shots simulating an attack on the Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station near Fukuoka. Lewis thinks Sasebo Naval Base in Nagasaki and Misawa Air Force Base to the north may be targeted as well.

Farther away are Guam and even Australia, a seemingly improbable target, but one that North Korea threatened this month during a visit by Vice President Pence. U.S. Marines train with Australian troops on a base in Darwin in the north of the continent.

Kim’s Holy Grail: The United States

This is the “deter” part of the strategy. Kim wants President Trump and the U.S. military to believe he can strike their homeland so maybe they will think twice about obliterating his.

The stars of a military parade last month in Pyongyang were huge green canisters which looked as if they could contain intercontinental ballistic missiles, the type that would be needed to hit the U.S. mainland. In case the point was too subtle, a concert video released around the same event showed missiles blowing up San Francisco.

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A mystery missile that showed up in the parade looked like a shorter version of an earlier known intermediate-range ballistic missile and is believed to be the missile test-fired May 14. The missile was fired almost straight into the air, but had it been launched at a lower angle, it could’ve flown about 2,800 miles, according to physicist David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists Global Security Program.

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Three days before the test, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said in an annual report to the Senate Intelligence Committee that he expects North Korea to conduct its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) flight test in 2017. If successful, the report said, it “would serve as a milestone toward a more reliable threat to the US mainland.”

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If Kim develops the technology, where would he aim ICBMs?

The biggest clue may have come in 2013 from Kim himself, again through propaganda. A photo accompanying a media report about threats to the continental United States showed the dictator with military officers in what looks like a military office or situation room, and around them hung several maps and lists of U.S. installations. One map clearly showed four ominous lines originating from somewhere in Asia and ending in the United States. (Never mind that it is much more likely that an ICBM would be fired up over the Arctic Circle than straight east to west.)

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One of the lines ended at Honolulu, home to U.S. Pacific Command and the USS Cheyenne submarine, which can launch long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles.

A second ended in Southern California, probably San Diego, the Pacific Fleet’s home port. The easternmost line went to Washington, D.C.

The end point of a fourth line is obscured by the officer’s hat, but Lewis believes it goes to Barksdale, La., home to Air Force Global Strike Command, which conducts long-range bomber missions.

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Pollack said experts say the only one of these sites North Korea could potentially reach now is Hawaii, and that is a stretch. South Korean media reported that the North has a missile with a range of more than 5,000 miles, long enough to reach Honolulu. If that missile exists, it has not been tested successfully.

Lewis believe these sites are the real targets, because they all have a legitimate military purpose. Other analysts add Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, home to U.S. Strategic Command, and Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, the point of origin for nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers.

Still others think Kim might target Seattle and San Francisco, the two largest West Coast population centers that would be the easiest to reach from North Korea.

“It’s not like there is an answer written down in a little book,” Lewis said. “The North Koreans have a kind of articulated strategy, and they’ve shown some scary stuff, and we’re left to sort of piece together what all that means.”

Should we panic? No, says Pollack.

Look behind the rhetoric, he said, and when it comes to nuclear weapons, North Korea has threatened only retaliation, not a first strike.

“They’re more capable than we give them credit for,” Pollack said. “But they’re sane.”

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