It seems impossible to imagine the most impoverished, backward communist regime in Asia, run by a madman and recovering from a crippling famine, should set out to build a long-range missile that could deliver a nuclear weapon all the way to the United States. And yet Mao Zedong’s China did it.
In 1964, as today, Americans had trouble accepting the new reality of their vulnerability. United States officials were slow to realize that China was on the verge of testing a nuclear weapon that year, and later were surprised to learn that Beijing was not willing to settle for only short-range missiles that could strike neighbors like Japan. The scope of Mao’s ambition — to develop a thermonuclear weapon that could hit the United States — did not match American preconceptions of China. And so, collectively, we did not believe it.
Over the past few years, North Korea has made every possible effort to indicate that, like Mao’s China, it was committed to developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental range ballistic missile. Starting in 2014, North Korea began testing missiles at a much faster pace than before. Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, began visiting defense industry plants all over the North, showing off newly built facilities and the new machine tools inside them. North Korea began releasing increasingly explicit pictures of its missile program, including some of new rocket engines and tests of the vehicle that would protect a nuclear weapon as it re-entered the atmosphere.
North Korea hasn’t been coy. It showed off new types of intercontinental ballistic missiles in parades in 2012, 2013 and 2015. In March 2013, North Korean state media released pictures of Mr. Kim approving a nuclear targeting plan, illustrated with a graphic of the United States titled “Mainland Strike Plan.” A handful of targets were identified, including San Diego, Calif., where the Pacific Fleet is based; Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where Air Force Global Strike Command is located, and Washington, D.C. In 2016, Mr. Kim posed with a shiny sphere, described as a North Korean nuclear warhead, placed next to an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM.
After each of these displays, the first question any reporter would ask me was, “What message do you think the North Koreans are trying to send?”
Starting this year, North Korea became even more explicit. On New Year’s Day, Mr. Kim said his country had completed preparations to test an ICBM. In April, Pyongyang celebrated the birthday of North Korea’s late founder Kim Il-sung with a military parade that showed off a series of new missiles, as well as two different types of missile canisters that appeared designed for never-before-seen ICBMs. In early June, North Korean media commented on the distance to New York City, warning that a test of a missile that could reach it was “not a long way off.”
The United States’ collective response to the prospect of North Korean ICBM testing was summed up in the final sentence of an early January Twitter message from President-elect Trump: “It won’t happen!”
And now it has. Twice. The most recent test, on July 28, likely won’t be the last.
Over the past few years, Americans have told ourselves one reassuring story after another: China will solve this problem for us. We can use cyberattacks to hack North Korea’s missiles. We can shoot down test missiles. The missiles are fakes, or too small to carry a nuclear payload. North Korean scientists will encounter some problem, possibly with missile guidance or re-entry, that will stop them cold.
These were all examples of wishful thinking.
It was never inconceivable that North Korea would develop a nuclear weapon and put it on a missile. This is hardly new technology. While only a few countries have built ICBMs, that is because only a few countries have felt the need to deter threats from across the globe. Both the Soviet Union and China were able to establish sophisticated rocket programs even though they lagged behind the West in other sectors. Some early North Korean tests inevitably failed, but there was never reason to think that failures would stop North Korea when they did not stop others.
Why didn’t we see the warnings? The main problem, I suspect, is that we don’t know what to do. Our portrayals of North Korea are all too often caricatures of bellicosity and backwardness. American politicians and editorial writers are still talking about using force to overthrow Mr. Kim, as if he were Saddam Hussein of Iraq in 2003 and not a leader with a nuclear arsenal.
The reality is that the United States is now vulnerable to North Korea’s nuclear-armed missiles — and has no choice but to live with that reality. Trying to disarm a nuclear-armed North Korea would be madness, even if some politicians find that fact too emasculating to acknowledge. Since admitting our vulnerability is a humiliation, we simply close our eyes and pretend it isn’t real.
The United States did something similar after China’s first nuclear test. American officials repeatedly called China’s bomb a “device” — a euphemism mocked at the time by Tom Lehrer, the great satirist of the Cold War — and argued that there was no evidence China could mount it on a ballistic missile.
That skepticism was no different than the skepticism some officials and experts have expressed about North Korea today. The Chinese response was to alter its schedule of nuclear tests. In 1966, the Chinese placed a live nuclear weapon on a ballistic missile, and fired it across the country to China’s test site in the western desert, where it exploded with a force of more than 10 kilotons. After that, the United States stopped denigrating China’s nuclear weapons.
Let’s hope it does not come to that with North Korea.
Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Middlebury Center of International Studies at Monterey in California and a columnist for Foreign Policy.