On Saturday, Jan. 13, the people of Hawaii were going about their daily business when an alert went out for an incoming ballistic missile. The following moments were likely those of chaos when finally, after 38 minutes, a correction was made and a false alarm declared.
The islands breathed a deep sigh of relief.
While preventative actions were taken after the unfortunate mishap, this incident takes place during a time of heightened tensions between the United States and North Korea. After countless threats of nuclear war and anti-American rhetoric from North Korean Leadership, the average American is right to feel overwhelmed and even a little worried.
How capable is North Korea of reaching us with a missile? Are we capable of protecting ourselves in the event that they do reach us? The answer may be closer than you think.
Christopher Ferrero, Ph.D., is a professor here at Coastal Carolina University with degrees in foreign affairs and security studies. He currently teaches students in the field of Intelligence and National Security. Prior to receiving his doctorate, Ferrero worked for both the State Department and the Missile Defense Agency where he focused on weapons of mass destruction and the prevention of nuclear war.
Dr. Ferrero was kind enough to share his thoughts on both the Hawaii incident and the United State’s current status with regard to North Korea in the hopes of putting our minds at ease. When asked his thoughts on the false alert in Hawaii, Dr. Ferrero reminds us that the mishap was not an intelligence failure but a mistake made solely by the Island’s communication system.
“We didn’t think that a missile was coming,” said Ferrero, in reference to the government.
Ferrero stressed the point that the communications unit unintentionally distributed false information. However, Dr. Ferrero also cautioned that “our intelligence systems are not foolproof and a major risk of playing this game is the possibility of accidental war.” Though unlikely, the former employee of Missile Defense explained that a human or technical error could result in an unintended missile launch from either nation.
When it comes to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Dr. Ferrero’s opinions are optimistic, at least from an American point of view.
“North Korea is only interested in nuclear weapons for the purposes of deterrence and not aggression," said Ferrero. "However, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. [North Korea] could seek to deter the United States but then pursue aggression towards South Korea with the hopes that we will be deterred.”
In other words, we are supposed to be afraid to act so that North Korea may do what they wish to our ally in the south. Dr. Ferrero also wishes to remind those who might be wary of a nuclear holocaust that “North Korea cannot threaten our existence the way that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War." However, they can "threaten South Korea’s existence at which point we must ask the question: are we willing to trade Seattle for Seoul?”
Ferrero is impressed by the rate of North Korea’s recent development of both long range and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) which was highly underestimated by the rest of the world. The United States possesses the technology to effectively detect any missile that is launched by North Korea, however these new missiles move at an extraordinary speed which makes them increasingly difficult to shoot down.
Ferrero states that in addition to the development of their missile technology, North Korea has the ability to detonate nuclear devices which has been evident by their series of tests over the past few years. The problem, according to Ferrero is that the North Koreans have not (at least at this point in time) been able to successfully deploy a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile.
In more recent news, North and South Korea have announced that they will compete in this year’s Winter Olympics under a single flag symbolizing a unified Korea. This, coupled with peace talks between the two nations, shows a warming in relations that could ease tensions worldwide.
While some may see the gesture as a diversionary tactic from the North so that it may continue its nuclear program, it is still a landmark gesture in a time of crisis. Only time will tell if this is a legitimate attempt at a brighter future, or merely another act of subterfuge.
Despite of what the future holds with regard to our enemies, and not just North Korea; we as a people must come together in peaceful coexistence. We are all Americans for better or for worse and would be wise to remember that. Whatever challenges may come, we will prevail.