If you weren't paying attention to North Korea throughout 2016—a year when major nuclear powers like Russia, the US, the UK, and China were all competing for the geopolitical spotlight by doing crazy shit—it was easy to forget that the hermit kingdom keeps on threatening to nuke its enemies.
And maybe you've been hearing that threat for so long that it sounds like empty bluster, but North Korea has also been working hard in 2016 to manufacture and test the related technologies that prove that its threats are credible, especially the very impressive Kwangmyongsong intercontinental ballistic missile. A missile that, in February, we found out is capable of hitting Los Angeles.
Recent analysis suggests that in 2020, North Korea will have a "reliable" nuclear armed missile that could hit US soil. But according to Rodger Baker, lead North Korea analyst at the Austin, Texas-based military intelligence firm Stratfor, it's not a question of when their missiles become reliable. "They're probably now capable of striking the United States," he said, and added that analysts within the US military are now "operating under the assumption that North Korea has the capability, even if it's not fully demonstrated."
In other words, North Korea is ready for all-out nuclear war in the same way your friend who keeps trying to get you to listen to his mixtape is ready to perform at the VMAs: We all feel pretty sure it wouldn't go very well for him, but actually who knows?
Earlier this year, Baker's team at Stratfor wrote a detailed analysis of how the US might attempt to wipe out North Korea's arsenal, and what Pyongyang's retaliation strategy would be. "These are important scenarios to play with," Baker told me.
To that end, Baker helped me game out what would happen the day of a first strike from North Korea—from the immediate lead-up, to the outbreak of war. Some parts of his forecast surprised me. For one thing, Baker said if you think the US would just push all the big red buttons at its disposal, and turn North Korea into a crater, you're probably not a very good military strategist.
Step 1: The US probably notices well before the launch
Given what technology we know North Korea currently has, it's safe to say a nuclear-armed missile wouldn't just suddenly erupt from an underground silo. North Korea has a few potential launch methods, but the most trustworthy would be an old fashioned—and very obvious—stationary launch tower. But Baker told me that option is actually the worst because intelligence officials in enemy countries would have time to catch on. "Those are the ones that take several days to several weeks to set up and prepare the missile," he said.
North Korea has successfully tested submarine-launched missiles as recently as December, but submarine-launched missiles only allow North Korea to attack from a few hundred miles off the coast, and North Korea's janky submarines would have a tough time making it that far.
A better option would be a launch from a transporter erector launcher, or TEL. "You see them in the movies and TV shows, basically a big truck with a trailer on it," he told me. "That's an hour timeline, to move the missile out of the tunnel, set it up, and fire." And for the record, North Korea does look like it owns some TELs, since it bought some from China in 2012, and parades missiles around Pyongyang in them.
But Baker seemed positive that even a one-hour setup is enough time for the world to notice that a North Korean missile is about to be launched, citing intense scrutiny on the region from an international network of radar scans, imaging satellites and heat signature-tracking equipment. "Very quickly after the North Koreans carry out a test, there are statements from the US and Japan about whether the test was successful or not, and that's because they've been monitoring the entire thing, even when the North Koreans do a surprise test with the mobile systems," Baker explained to me.
In short, he says there wouldn't really be a surprise attack. "First, all the missile defense systems are put on heightened alert," Baker told me. After that, he explained that Japanese missile defense ships would be maneuvered into place.
Game on for missile defense.
Step 2: The US and Japan weigh a possible pre-emptive strike
But of course, the best defense is a good offense. According to foreign policy analysts at George Washington University Law School, if spies were sure North Korea was arming a missile with a nuclear warhead and aiming it at the US, the US could launch a preemptive strike, and be confident that it could justify the strike later to the UN as a response to an "imminent armed attack."
That decision might not even involve a phone call from President Trump, according to Baker.
"I think it's going to come down to a decision by the military," he told me. He also explained that the military likes preemptive action. Waiting for an attack, and hoping it gets deflected is risky. On the other hand, if you strike preemptively, "you have a 100 percent chance of destroying it, and that's going to be the preference."
But justifying pre-emptive airstrikes would be a sticky wicket, and the strikes themselves could trigger a potentially indignant response from China, Russia, and even South Korea. "From a political perspective," Baker said, "it would probably be better to allow the North to launch, and then shoot it, than it would to strike it while it's still on the platform."
So it's not out of the question—but it appears unlikely—that the US would knowingly let a North Korean missile leave the ground.
Step 3: A missile gets launched
Even if the launch goes well, it's by no means certain that a North Korean missile would get anywhere near US soil. Intercontinental ballistic missiles are essentially suicidal spaceships that start their trip by leaving Earth's atmosphere. "The North Koreans have now demonstrated that they were able, at least in one test, to drop the front of a missile that looks like it went exoatmospheric, and then fell back in," Baker told me. But just falling back in isn't enough if the bomb on board the missile gets damaged in the process. "They've done some ground tests that show that their warheads are potentially capable of surviving re-entry," he said.
Then of course, there's the open question of where this hypothetical missile would be headed. Baker told me there's no real certainty about just where in the US North Korea would want to strike, and that reachable locales like Hawaii and Los Angeles aren't the only areas Kim Jong-un has threatened. "We remember the map they published in pictures a few years back where there were little lines that may or may not have been [going] straight to Austin," he said.
Step 4: The US and Japan try to shoot down the missile before it hits
"There are land-based radar systems that are watching, as well as satellite systems that are constantly on the lookout for even the heat signature of a launch," Baker said. Inside of South Korea, the US has been planning for some time now to install a missile defense system called THAAD, but given the political instability of the last few weeks in South Korea, it's by no means certain that the THAAD system will be put in place.
If THAAD exists at the time of launch and the missile is able to make it past it, it may not make it past Japan. Japanese Aegis navy ships would be floating around, completely ready to shoot defensive missiles of their own.
If the missile successfully crosses the Pacific Ocean, responsibility for knocking them out falls to the US missile defense system in Alaska. Though that system does have holes. "It's not perfect, and it's never going to be perfect," Baker said.
So if North Korea were extremely lucky, there might be a mushroom cloud over a US city.
Still, in Baker's professional opinion, "it's highly likely that if the North Koreans are able to only pop off one or two missiles, those would never ultimately reach their target."
But in all likelihood, North Korea will have better capabilities soon.
Baker pointed to multiple-warhead missiles—some of which are terrifying super-weapons of almost unfathomable sophistication—as a potential dodge of the US missile defense system. "You can have multiple warheads potentially on the same missile that go in different directions, and you can aim them as they come down, and you can have dummies in there," Baker said. When North Korea gets its hands on that technology—and it's only a matter of time—they'll have a credible claim that they can nuke the US.
Step 5: China responds
Here's a good reason why President Trump might want to take it easy on China: according to Baker, it's very possible that if North Korea staged an unprovoked attack, China might move to prevent a second Korean War.
"China has intimated that if the North Koreans trigger a military conflict, that China may in fact intervene in Pyongyang, and hold the Northern component of North Korea, and not give additional military support to the North Korean regime," Baker said. "I do not think the Chinese has any expectation that they're on par with the United States if there were this type of confrontation."
But not all analysts feel like China would turn against its ally, North Korea. Joel S. Wit of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies wrote in The New York Times, that while China has pressured North Korea to denuclearize, it's overall attitude hasn't really changed. "A united Korea allied with Washington on China's border would be bad news for Beijing given its continuing rivalry with the United States in Asia," he wrote.
Step 6: The US retaliates, but probably doesn't nuke North Korea
Trump has signaled that he could be willing to use nuclear weapons against ISIS, so it stands to reason that he might well nuke North Korea in retaliation, right? Baker thinks not.
"I think that's highly unlikely because the number of weapons the North Koreans have is extremely limited, and the size of the Korean Peninsula is extremely tiny, and the implications of dropping nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula are fairly large for the long-term reconstruction effort at bare minimum, but also for South Korea."
Instead, Baker anticipates "a major cruise missile, followed up by an air campaign against all of the frontline North Korean artillery." The idea, he said, would be to disable North Korea's artillery along its front line, along with its mobile missile systems. It would be doing this all while "moving additional assets into the region," he said.
Step 7: A war that North Korea probably doesn't win
Now that both sides have used weapons, it matters much less who started it, and it's here that Stratfor's earlier report on the outbreak of a conflict between North Korea, and the US-South Korea team, becomes especially informative. Basically, "the first few hours of the conflict are essentially the time in which North Korea has to utilize every possible tool that it has," Baker told me. He thinks the North Koreans would fall back on its "traditional tools," which may include biological or chemical weapons—"more likely chemical than biological"—in an effort to slow any ground action by the United States, and put some serious hurt on northern South Korea for a while.
After that, it's war, and Baker doesn't give North Korea very good odds.
Barring some kind of sudden political shift in which South Koreans suddenly love Kim Jong-un, Baker told me, "it's still safe to say that in a conflict that's going to involve the United States—and maybe even a conflict that's only between the two Koreas—it's very hard for the North Koreans to end up on top."
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