North Korea’s Nuclear Program and the Cone of Uncertainty


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North Korea has nuclear weapons. It has miniaturization technology. All that North Korea needs now is a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Previously, I had written that once the North acquires a dependable ICBM and mass produces them, there would be very little stopping the North from using those weapons to threaten not only vulnerable American allies, such as South Korea or Japan, but the United States itself. In the summer, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) released a report speculating that the North had 18 months–at most–before it acquired an ICBM capability that would fundamentally threaten the United States. I concurred with this assessment, adding the caveat that, depending on how many resources the North pours into the development of an ICBM (and how many or few technical obstacles arise in the interregnum), the North could acquire a full-throated nuclear capability within 6-18 months.

This is what I’m referring to as the “cone of uncertainty.” In project management, the “cone of uncertainty,” (at least according to a fairly reasonable Wikipedia article) refers to “evolution of the amount of uncertainty during a project. Uncertainty not only decreases over time passing, but it also diminishes its impact by risk management, specifically by decision-making.” This is a term that applies also to computer science, particularly in software development. When talk of the “cone of uncertainty” arises in software development, it refers to the variability in a given development project. Construx has an excellent analysis of this variability:

“Early in a project, specific details of the nature of the software to be built, details of specific requirements, details of the solution, project plan, staffing, and other project variables are unclear. The variability in these factors contributes variability to project estimates — an accurate estimate of a variable phenomenon must include the variability in the phenomenon itself. As these sources of variability are further investigated and pinned down, the variability in the project diminishes, and so the variability in the project estimates can also diminish. This phenomenon is known as the ‘Cone of Uncertainty’ which is illustrated in the following figure. As the figure suggests, significant narrowing of the Cone occur during the first 20-30% of the total calendar time for the project.”

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Obviously, as the writers at Construx point out, the variability is reduced through definitional refinement. However, whether talking about a new piece of software being created or when North Korea will be able to strike the United States (or if they even will), the parameters are far too poorly defined to give an accurate reading (hence the general, 6-18 months assessment). The cone will narrow, given enough time. It becomes an organic phenomenon. But, the goal should be to do away with the uncertainty before the end of the project. Decisions and events unfolding in real-time have a way of restructuring the cone either into a cloud or narrowing it to such a point that clarity–and therefore certainty–arises.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.52.54 AM.pngToday, most people in the media are running around with their proverbial hair on fire over the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. But, this has not happened in a vacuum. Nor has this program happened overnight. Far from it. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the North Korean nuclear weapons program has been with us in earnest since the early 1990s. Former President Bill Clinton was presented with the early formulation of this program in 1994. At that time, rather than use America’s hegemonic position atop the post-Cold War unipolar world order, former President Clinton decided to defer; he opted for weak-kneed diplomacy over decisive action that would have shored up the American-led “Liberal International Order” that the democratic globalists of the West are always waxing eloquent about.

The decision was “weak-kneed” not because diplomacy was employed. Rather, it was a poor response because the diplomacy that was implemented was actually an abdication of leadership to the North Koreans. The Clinton Administration did not engage in tit-for-tat horse-trading that good diplomacy requires. Instead, the Clinton Administration (along with America’s venerable allies in Europe and South Korea) went to the North Korean regime and begged the Kim Regime to discontinue their nuclear development. In exchange for cash bribes, the West would allow the North Korean regime to continue its reign unmolested. Clearly, this was not diplomacy; it was blackmail. Good diplomacy deters a rival state; great powers employ “coercive diplomacy,” in the words of noted international relations scholar, Henry R. Nau–especially hegemonic world powers, such as the United States. The Clinton Administration needed to ramp up its force presence in the region and start acting boldly, offering to meet the North Korean leadership for disarmament talks–with the threat of overwhelming American force always lurking in the background of such talks. But, this was not to be. The decision was made. North Korea would be allowed to continue its nuclear development.

The “project” was put into motion.

As the world ignored the North Korean “hermit kingdom,” the North built its capabilities, up becoming a primary player in what I’ve dubbed as the, “nuclear nexus.” It became a leading proliferator of terrorism, illicit arms, narcotics, criminality, and eventually it will become a primary proliferator of nuclear arms. Anyway, in 2006, the North tested its first rudimentary nuclear weapon. They then began producing a limited number of these weapons. The project was further defined; the cone of uncertainty narrowed. However, the West was not paying close enough attention; the George W. Bush Administration (and later the Obama Administration) did not decide to act. Thus, over the years, a cloud of uncertainty existed over Western analyses on the development timeline of the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.52.45 AM.pngThe North Koreans have been steadily increasing their capabilities, as the West has been dithering. The cone of uncertainty has narrowed. Whereas before the debate always centered around whether the North Koreans had a real nuclear weapons program at all, it is now simply a question of when the North will have a nuclear weapons arsenal capable of directly threatening the United States? That day is fast-approaching. 18 months is the safe estimate. But, what does that entail? Is 18 months when the first North Korean ICBM will be tested, or is 18 months when the North will have a large enough arsenal to truly threaten the United States with nuclear hellfire? Many in the intelligence community might think that 18 months is when Kim Jong-un will have a reliable ICBM. I disagree.

The Asia Times is already reporting that the Hwasong-15, the massive ICBM that the North Koreans tested in November of this year, appears to have the capacity to carry multiple, independent warheads. More ominously, Joe Cirincione, a nuclear weapons specialist told the trade publication, Defense One, that the Hwasong-15 missile, “appears capable of accommodating countermeasures that US missile defenses haven’t been tested against.” As I reported shortly after the November 29 test of the Hwasong-15, there are still technical issues to be worked out, meaning we have a little bit of time. But, the bottom line is that the day is fast-approaching when North Korea not only has a reliable nuclear arsenal that can threaten the United States, but will in all likelihood use those nuclear arms against the United States as a means to enacting the most insane parts of North Korea’s juche ideology.

The Trump Administration does not appear to be backing down from holding North Korea’s proverbial feet to the fire. However, the big question mark remains how far will we go (because I still maintain that Kim Jong-un is going to go all of the way)? Irrespective of whether the North Koreans have a fully functional nuclear weapons capability in 18, 15, or 6 months–or if they have it 3 days–the United States is going to have to deal with this matter. I’ve argued that the Trump Administration needs to get serious about space-based missile defense and offensive weaponry. Time is not on our side in this matter, but just moving toward that possibility will likely induce the otherwise intransigent Chinese and Russians to take considerable steps to rein in their North Korean ward.

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Meanwhile, the Trump Administration should explicitly state that any nuclear attack against the United States or its allies will prompt an immediate and overwhelming nuclear response from the United States–regardless of what either the Chinese or Russians say. Remember, former Secretary of State James Baker explicitly gave a similar warning to Saddam Hussein during Desert Storm when the fear was that Saddam would place WMD on his Scud missiles and deploy them against either Coalition forces or the Israelis. Ultimately, Saddam did launch Scuds at Israel, but they were armed only with conventional weapons. This was likely due to Saddam’s fear of what an American reprisal would entail. In the meantime, the next missile test that is detected must be shot out of the sky. And, failing that, the place from whence it was launched must be bombed.

There’s something more, also, that the Trump Administration must take into account: that is the aforementioned nuclear nexus. North Korea is the leading rogue state in this loose network of nuclear proliferators, but both China and Russia are the greatest state protectors of this network (as are European countries, such as France). They have their reasons for this. But, in the case of China and Russia, their goals are simple to state: undermine American hegemony to help secure the multipolar world these powers seek (by denying America’s military its freedom of action with the presence of nukes in rogue regime’s hands); complicate U.S. foreign policy to make America more dependent on Chinese and/or Russia to ameliorate a national security risk (which they will never completely do either because they cannot or will not, in order to continue extracting concessions from the United States); and continue to extract concessions from the United States and its allies, by encouraging the persistence of the threat (in this case, the North Korean nuclear development).

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Recently, U.S. bombers practiced bombing North Korean targets during a joint military training exercise with the the South Korean military off South Korea’s coast. Kim Jong-un called it a “provocation.”

While it remains clear that the United States will continue deferring action until the North Koreans take a decisive action toward greater aggression, this is likely a mistake. The United States has ignored the North Korean threat; it has, at times, decided to either cede the issue to the North Koreans or to simply not decide at all, thereby adding to the cone of uncertainty. What is certain that, at present, the North will have a working nuclear arsenal that can threaten anywhere in the world no later than 18 months from now. What is also certain is that, the longer that the Trump Administration delays decisive action, the more likely that the United States will have to say “goodbye” to one of its prized cities, and will still be forced to defend South Korea from a probably invasion from the North (and/or retaliate against the North for likely attacks against Japan).

This is the reality. There is no escape from it. We can either cede the issue to the North, all but assuring we will get sucked in to a war not of our choosing; or we can start taking decisive action now that will prevent the reality of a fully, nuclear-armed North Korea. The choices are stark, and will likely lead us to the same place. So, I ask you: do you want to lose little in the short-term, or big in the long-term? You decide.


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