North Korea and the Northwest threat

The Obama administration raises new concerns about the vulnerability of the West Coast to missile attack.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il Russian Presidential Press Office/Wikimedia Commons

Maybe it's because I'm a Cold War kid, but I don't take the possibility of a nuclear threat from North Korea lightly. It is known they have the missile capability to throw our way: Alaska and the West Coast are both thought to be within range. But can they put all the pieces together: delivery vehicle, targeting, warhead? Should Seattle pull its fallout shelters out of mothballs?

The Obama administration sees the potential for serious trouble ahead. To wit:

In a major new assessment of North Korea, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said on Tuesday (Jan. 11) that the country is becoming a direct threat to the United States and was within five years of developing a missile with the potential of hitting Alaska or the West Coast.

The trick, according to Gates, is whether the North Koreans can actually deliver a nuclear payload:

Exploding a nuclear device underground, which North Korea did in 2006 and again in 2009, is comparatively simple. Manufacturing a warhead that is light, small and reliable is a far more complex art.

It is unclear whether the North obtained designs for a warhead from an outside country — especially Pakistan, which sold it uranium enrichment equipment. Designing such a warhead from scratch is difficult, as Iran has learned.

But doable.

There are several major potential impacts. One is the threat itself and where a missile might land. Another is the revival of missile defense deployments, a controversial and expensive program. Slate's smart defense analyst Fred Kaplan did an interesting piece on this for Seattle Weekly on this back in 2003. The front line now for missile defense in the Pacific Northwest: Fort Greely, Alaska. 

You don't need to be on Sarah Palin's porch to see the danger posed by North Korea's "Paradise for People."

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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