war on the rocks

Entry 49: Roving Red Lines

February 20, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 49th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

I only put down about 430 words today.  My schedule was filled with non-book tasks, but everything I did seemed to take way longer than expected.

I sit down to edit a piece for the Texas National Security Review that I think will take 20 minutes and it takes two hours.  I do an interview for someone else’s research (sometimes I’m an object of other peoples’ research because of my days working in policy) that I schedule for 30 minutes and it goes for 90 minutes.  I sit down to grade a master’s student thesis and realize I won’t even be able to do it in one sitting.  Before I knew it the day was over.

My book-writing time today was focused on roving red lines, reviewing statements that came out of the Obama administration about North Korea crossing a nebulous nuclear threshold.

The Trump administration continues to make a big deal out of North Korea being mere “months away” from being able to reliably strike the U.S. homeland with nukes.  And every few months, they keep saying Pyongyang is still only a few months away.  Something’s going on here that seems very disingenuous.  I though whatever the Obama administration said about its “red line” (whatever that means) on North Korean nukes would be more important than it might otherwise be because the Trump team’s entire strategy so far rests on drawing a red line against North Korea being able to threaten the United States with nukes (something it does regularly, by the way).

What I found so far is that the “game changing-ly” unacceptable nuke capability in the Obama era was the KN-08 (and variants thereof)—an ICBM capable of firing from a mobile launch platform.  North Korea essentially had the nuke warhead it needed to hurt us by early 2013 but hadn’t demonstrated the missile capability to deliver the warhead.  By 2015, senior U.S. defense officials publicly assessed on at least four occasions (that I could find) that North Korea had the ability to put a nuke on a missile that could hit U.S. territory.

You read that correctly.  The Department of Defense was assessing that North Korea could already hit the United States with nukes in 2015!  Game over.  It’s worth noting that the Obama White House always downplayed those assessments, which itself is an interesting tension, but without providing justification or counter-assessments.  So what the hell is the Trump administration talking about with its constantly shifting (and imprecise) red line on North Korean nukes?

One of two things is happening here.  One possibility is that the red line the Trump team keeps drawing and re-drawing is completely artificial.  It’s hard to make that determination because the administration is never precise about what they say.  But if their red line is artificial, their entire pressure campaign on Pyongyang isn’t about deterrence (preventing something from happening) but compellence (forcing something to be undone…fat chance).  They want the public to see what they’re doing as preventing a breakout—and therefore worth “maximum pressure”—but the horse has left the barn.  North Korea can nuke Los Angeles.

The other possibility is that they’re making a distinction of degree about precision, range, or reliability.  If so, it’s angels dancing on pinheads.  Technically, North Korea won’t prove they can hit America with nukes until they actually do.  Is that something anybody wants?  But even if that’s the argument you want to make—and that would be dumb—North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated an ability the past two years to strike U.S. bases across the region.  In that case, any red line worth fighting a war over would also have to be worth sacrificing U.S. troops (and bases) in the region.  We have over 100,000 troops across the Pacific.

So I don’t know the nature of the language game that the Trump administration is playing when it comes to North Korean nukes and red lines, but it’s definitely playing one.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review.