There’s nothing so depressing as watching a bunch of smart people–citizens, reporters and even a certain congressional representative from Hawaii–lose their collective minds over a single sentence. This has been going on for weeks now concerning North Korea, but everyone really seemed to lose it yesterday, when U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris testified before the House Armed Services Committee. His subject was, of course, the ballistic missile threat posed by North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to its friends). During his oral testimony, Harris said a dozen words that are scaring the hell out of just about everyone out here.
“Kim Jong-un is clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today,” Harris said in response to questioning by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D–Hawaii.
As soon as I read that statement, I envisioned screaming headlines around the state (and the nation), telling an already nervous public about how a top American military leader had just confirmed that the threat posted by North Korean nuclear missiles was an immediate danger. I wasn’t disappointed.
“Missile defense for Hawaii needs to be stronger, Harris tells Congress,” stated the April 26 Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Hawaii News Now followed up with “PACOM head to Congress: North Korea ‘clearly’ a threat to Hawaii.”
Rep. Gabbard’s own press release, sent out the night of April 26, was even more frightening:
Hawaii is home to the largest concentration of U.S. military strategic assets for well over 3,000 miles, making it a prime target for North Korea’s aggression. As I travelled across Hawaii during my recent state-wide town hall tour, I heard from my constituents on every island their concern about the threat posed by North Korea’s increased nuclear and ballistic missile activity and capabilities that place Hawaii squarely within North Korea’s crosshairs. It is the people of Hawaii and our way of life that are at risk if North Korea’s missiles turn towards our shores. Admiral Harris’ testimony today affirmed the seriousness of this threat, and highlighted the need to strengthen our current missile defense infrastructure to ensure the defense of Hawaii. I’m continuing this urgent push to strengthen the protection of Hawaii against the threat that exists today, and the complex threat we know will emerge in the future. I urge my colleagues to take this threat seriously and provide the resources and tools necessary to defend Hawaii against this threat.
Wait–”North Korea’s aggression?” Hawaii is “squarely within North Korea’s crosshairs?”
Let’s step back a moment. Anyone can make a threat. But only a threat backed by the capability to carry it out is serious. To be clear, even with Admiral Harris’ recent testimony, it still doesn’t look like the DPRK currently has the capability to launch a nuclear-armed ballistic missile at Hawaii (though it does seem capable of launching such a missile at South Korea or Japan). Yes, the regime is developing three missiles that might be able to hit Hawaii, but most analysts believe those missiles aren’t yet operational (click here for an excellent graphic from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that shows exactly what we know about North Korean missiles, both operational and under development).
Ironically, we find evidence of this in Admiral Harris’ own testimony. While Harris’ oral testimony won over the media’s attention, it’s important to note that he also submitted 36 pages of written testimony to the House Armed Services Committee. At no time in this written testimony did Harris mention anything about North Korea posing an immediate threat to Hawaii. In fact, Harris’ written testimony DOES include this rather definitive statement: “Kim’s strategic capabilities are not yet an existential threat to the U.S. [emphasis added], but if left unchecked, he will gain the capability to match his rhetoric” (click here to read all of Admiral Harris’ written testimony).
Too bad none of the breathless news stories I cited above (to say nothing of Gabbard’s recent press release) addressed that inconsistency in Harris’ testimonies. To learn more about what’s going on here, I asked Sharon Squassoni, the Director and Senior Fellow at the CSIS Proliferation Prevention Program. She’s studied nuclear weapons proliferation extensively, and is the author of this April 14 Teen Vogue essay on what we really know about the North Korean nuclear weapons program. She said that Admiral Harris’ statement that North Korea is “clearly in a position to threaten Hawaii today” is “not consistent” with other statements he made during his testimony, but that “he was probably being cautious.”
“In his oral testimony, Adm. Harris said a few times that Kim Jong Un’s rhetoric about striking the United States did match his capabilities,” Squassoni told me in an April 27 email. “In general, I’d put greater stock in his written testimony, which has likely been vetted up and down the chain of command, than in his spoken remarks. Sometimes even the best public servants mis-speak.”
Of course, Squassoni also reminded me that the issue of nuclear weapons in North Korea is extremely complex and full of unknowns. “Yes, there’s a lot of debate about North Korea’s missile capabilities and it doesn’t help that North Korea has incentives to allow us to believe its capabilities are greater than they are,” Squassoni said. “The truth is we don’t really know but we can make our best estimates. Those best estimates are that North Korea doesn’t yet have that capability but it wants that capability. And as long as it continues unrestrained, it may get there.”
There’s something else at work here as well. Sure, Kim Jong-Un’s regime wants us to be scared of his possibly nuking Hawaii–if I were a dirt poor nation facing possible invasion and attack by a superpower like the United States, I’d bluster about massive destruction, too. But the Pentagon is also big on scaring legislators (and taxpayers) because that’s how it gets new weapons–in this case, more missile defense systems. We’ve already seen in Gabbard’s press release an urgent cry for more missile defense. Given the seemingly endless need for the Pentagon to buy new weapons, it would seem Admiral Harris succeeded in that regard.
“[P]lease remember that he [Harris] would be remiss in his duties if he did not use this opportunity speaking to Congress to ask for more money, so it’s no surprise that he would be recommending more missile defense capabilities,” Squassoni said in her email.
Look, the North Korean regime may develop intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting both Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. It’s difficult prospect–an April 16 North Korean missile test apparently ended in failure–but it’s not impossible. When this might happen, no one can say. It’s a scary possibility, sure, but right now, it’s likely just that–a possibility.
Photo of North Korean missile on display (2013): Stefan Krasowski/Flickr