Yesterday on Radio National, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said the following about North Korea:
In terms of military intelligence, it appears the country is almost ready to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile with a capacity of reaching the United States.
I contacted Jeffrey Lewis, founding editor of the influential Arms Control Wonk blog and Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, DC for his take on that statement. Here's Lewis' response, in full:
There have been a number of vague official statements and inscrutable leaks that seem to suggest North Korea is taking steps to deploy the KN-08 ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) without a flight test. This is a very unusual step, but not an inconceivable one.
Still, the US has yet to say so directly. This is unacceptable. The United States, Australia and other allies appear to be taking important policy decisions on the basis of the imminent deployment of the KN-08. If this is the case, they should say so directly and provide the basis for asserting the imminent deployment of the KN-08.
One important thing to note here is that the KN-08 (pictured; image courtesy of Arms Control Wonk) is a completely different system to that which launched a North Korean satellite into orbit in December 2012, and which many assume is also an ICBM program. When the KN-08 was first displayed during a Pyongyang military parade in April last year, there was debate about whether it was real or a fake. Perhaps the most revealing thing about Carr's statement yesterday is that he has evidently been convinced by his intelligence briefings that the system is real.
The 'vague official statements' Lewis refers to are laid out in more detail in his recent FP article. I'm not certain yet what Lewis means about Australia taking 'important policy steps'; I will follow up*. But with regard to the US, I assume he has in mind the recent Pentagon announcement to beef up US missile defences in Alaska. Read Lewis' aforementioned FP article to find out what he thinks of the logic of that decision.
In light of Carr's comments, it is worth re-reading Hugh White's Interpreter post from December 2012, The Prospect of a North Korean ICBM. Key quote:
Extended deterrence depends on the credibility (to both the adversary and the ally) of US threats to respond to any nuclear attack on the ally with a US nuclear attack on the adversary. Such credibility depends a great deal on whether the adversary has the capacity to hit back at the US. As long as North Korea has no credible capacity to target America itself, a US retaliatory strike on the North carries relatively low risks for the US itself.
But if the North can hit back, the costs for the US go up dramatically, and the credibility of the US threat goes down. In a crisis, everyone will be asking whether stopping North Korea doing whatever it wants to do is important enough to America to risk a nuclear attack on Honolulu or LA.
* UPDATE (16.54, 3 April). Jeffrey Lewis writes: 'Oh, I was just being inclusive. Australia is participating in KEY RESOLVE, so it is implicated in all the signaling the US is doing with SSNs, B52s and B2s. It seemed odd to me to omit it.'