“Disrupting their tests,” William J. Perry, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, said at a recent presentation in Washington, would be “a pretty effective way of stopping their ICBM program.”
Decades in the Making
Three generations of the Kim family have dreamed that their broken, otherwise failed nation could build its own nuclear weapons, and the missiles to deliver them, as the ultimate survival strategy. With nukes in hand, the Kims have calculated, they need not fear being overrun by South Korea, invaded by the United States or sold out by China.
North Korea began seeking an intercontinental ballistic missile decades ago: It was the dream of Kim Il-sung, the country’s founder, who bitterly remembered the American threats to use nuclear weapons against the North during the Korean War.
His break came after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when out-of-work Russian rocket scientists began seeking employment in North Korea. Soon, a new generation of North Korean missiles began to appear, all knockoffs of Soviet designs. Though flight tests were sparse, American experts marveled at how the North seemed to avoid the kinds of failures that typically strike new rocket programs, including those of the United States in the late 1950s.
The success was so marked that Timothy McCarthy of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey wrote in a 2001 analysis that Pyongyang’s record “appears completely unique in the history of missile development and production.”
In response, President George W. Bush in late 2002 announced the deployment of antimissile interceptors in Alaska and California. At the same time, Mr. Bush accelerated programs to get inside the long supply chain of parts for North Korean missiles, lacing them with defects and weaknesses, a technique also used for years against Iran.
Threat Grows in Obama Era
By the time Mr. Obama took office in January 2009, the North had deployed hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles that used Russian designs, and had made billions of dollars selling its Scud missiles to Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. But it aspired to a new generation of missiles that could fire warheads over much longer distances.
In secret cables written in the first year of the Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton laid out the emerging threat. Among the most alarming released by WikiLeaks, the cables described a new path the North was taking to reach its long-range goal, based on a missile designed by the Soviets decades ago for their submarines that carried thermonuclear warheads.
It was called the R-27. Unlike the North’s lumbering, older rockets and missiles, these would be small enough to hide in caves and move into position by truck. The advantage was clear: This missile would be far harder for the United States to find and destroy.
“North Korea’s next goal may be to develop a mobile ICBM that would be capable of threatening targets around the world,” said an October 2009 cable marked “Secret” and signed by Mrs. Clinton.
The next year, one of the new missiles showed up in a North Korean military parade, just as the intelligence reports had warned.
By 2013, North Korean rockets thundered with new regularity. And that February, the North set off a nuclear test that woke up Washington: The monitoring data told of an explosion roughly the size of the bomb that had leveled Hiroshima.
Days after the explosion, the Pentagon announced an expansion of its force of antimissile interceptors in California and Alaska. It also began to unveil its “left of launch” program to disable missiles before liftoff — hoping to bolster its chances of destroying them. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced the program, saying that “cyberwarfare, directed energy and electronic attack,” a reference to such things as malware, lasers and signal jamming, were all becoming important new adjuncts to the traditional ways of deflecting enemy strikes.
He never mentioned North Korea. But a map accompanying General Dempsey’s policy paper on the subject showed one of the North’s missiles streaking toward the United States. Soon, in testimony before Congress and at public panels in Washington, current and former officials and a major contractor — Raytheon — began talking openly about “left of launch” technologies, in particular cyber and electronic strikes at the moment of launch.
The North, meanwhile, was developing its own exotic arsenal. It tried repeatedly to disrupt American and South Korean military exercises by jamming electronic signals for guided weapons, including missiles. And it demonstrated its cyberpower in the oddest of places — Hollywood. In 2014, it attacked Sony Pictures Entertainment with a strike that destroyed about 70 percent of the company’s computing systems, surprising experts with its technical savvy.
Last month, a report on cybervulnerabilities by the Defense Science Board, commissioned by the Pentagon during the Obama administration, warned that North Korea might acquire the ability to cripple the American power grid, and cautioned that it could never be allowed to “hold vital U.S. strike systems at risk.”
Secret Push, and New Doubts
Not long after General Dempsey made his public announcement, Mr. Obama and his defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, began calling meetings focused on one question: Could a crash program slow the North’s march toward an intercontinental ballistic missile?
There were many options, some drawn from General Dempsey’s list. Mr. Obama ultimately pressed the Pentagon and intelligence agencies to pull out all the stops, which officials took as encouragement to reach for untested technologies.
The North’s missiles soon began to fail at a remarkable pace. Some were destroyed, no doubt, by accident as well as by design. The technology the North was pursuing, using new designs and new engines, involved multistage rockets, introducing all kinds of possibilities for catastrophic mistakes. But by most accounts, the United States program accentuated the failures.
The evidence was in the numbers. Most flight tests of an intermediate-range missile called the Musudan, the weapon that the North Koreans showed off in public just after Mrs. Clinton’s warning, ended in flames: Its overall failure rate is 88 percent.
Nonetheless Kim Jong-un has pressed ahead on his main goal: an intercontinental ballistic missile. Last April, he was photographed standing next to a giant test-stand, celebrating after engineers successfully fired off a matched pair of the potent Russian-designed R-27 engines. The implication was clear: Strapping two of the engines together at the base of a missile was the secret to building an ICBM that could ultimately hurl warheads at the United States.
In September, he celebrated the most successful test yet of a North Korean nuclear weapon — one that exploded with more than twice the destructive force of the Hiroshima bomb.
His next goal, experts say, is to combine those two technologies, shrinking his nuclear warheads to a size that can fit on an intercontinental missile. Only then can he credibly claim that his isolated country has the know-how to hit an American city thousands of miles away.
In the last year of his presidency, Mr. Obama often noted publicly that the North was learning from every nuclear and missile test — even the failures — and getting closer to its goal. In private, aides noticed he was increasingly disturbed by North Korea’s progress.
With only a few months left in office, he pushed aides for new approaches. At one meeting, he declared that he would have targeted the North Korean leadership and weapons sites if he thought it would work. But it was, as Mr. Obama and his assembled aides knew, an empty threat: Getting timely intelligence on the location of North Korea’s leaders or their weapons at any moment would be almost impossible, and the risks of missing were tremendous, including renewed war on the Korean Peninsula.