Two Idiomatic Meanings: 1) “Attempting to stay cheerful in a dire situation; proceeding with a task, ignoring an upcoming hazard, hoping for a good outcome;” or 2) ”Entering a situation with little or no understanding of the possible consequences.” . . . Take your pick.
“Whistling past the graveyard” is precisely what came to mind when I read the prepared testimony of witnesses at last week’s (September 14) Hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific (Click here) on “North Korea’s Perpetual Provocations: Another Dangerous, Escalatory Nuclear Test.”
My knee-jerk recollection was tied to 70-year old memories of when I whistled past the cemeteries in my youth. But I wasn’t sure what the idiom is supposed to mean today — so, I googled and got the above two explanations. Let me tell my reaction to the testimony, and you decide which best fits — for me and you.
First, I have to say I have not yet seen the transcript of the entire hearing; so, my comments are based only on the written presentations of the witnesses. I hope in the back and forth with members the subcommittee discussion got closer to my major concerns associated with last week’s second nuclear test this year and fifth over all — on the heels (so far this year) of tests of 17 ballistic missiles of a variety of ranges. See the following CSIS interesting chart that summarizes North Korea’s record of testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles (most if not all in violation of UN Resolutions), demonstrating a major tempo increase during the past eight years. This chart was provided in testimony by Dr. Victor D. Cha of Georgetown University, CSIS and the George W. Bush Institute.
I have three concerns from the written testimony of the four witnesses:
- First, with minor exceptions, witnesses suggested that North Korea doesn’t yet have a significant nuclear capability — and we need to double down on our diplomatic/sanctions efforts to stop them. (I believe they probably already have a significant nuclear capability and am skeptical of diplomacy which has failed miserably since the 1990s to slow them down.)
- Second, consequences of the well-known North Korea-Iran alliance, mentioned by at least one witness, were mostly unaddressed, in spite of Iran’s regular presence at North Korean tests and ability to purchase key nuclear and ballistic missile technology — no doubt with Russian and Chinese help to both rogue states. (President Obama’s Nuclear Deal with Iran clearly aids this proliferation with more Iranian “dollars for bombs.”)
- Third — and most important, all ignored the existential threat of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the United States, a threat that North Korea already poses — with Iran not far, if at all, behind. (This reality poses an existential threat to America.)
You may want to review the testimony for yourself, but my following brief highlights should give you the general idea of their good and not so good aspects. I look forward to getting the transcript for the entire hearing to see if they addressed any of the above concerns in their exchanges with our Representatives.
Dr. Cha opined that even though North Korea “is still years away from striking the U.S. homeland with a ballistic missile, we must accept now that 1) they threaten U.S. troops in Korea and Japan, and as far away as Guam and Hawaii; and 2) they are well on a path to field an ICBM force to reach the U.S.” with a goal not just to produce a few bombs; “instead, it is a force of 100 or more nuclear-armed weapons, ranging from long-range strike to battlefield use that could be employed in a shooting war.” To enhance our ability to live with these realities, he argues for diplomatic means and sanctions as the way the next president should deal with this “Number 1″ threat. He argued for deploying the U.S. Theater High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea to help protect them and U.S. troops against North Korea’s ballistic missiles.
Bruce Klinger, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, listed several North Korean tests, one contradicting Dr. Cha by observing that North Korean has placed a 450 pound payload in orbit — and noting that satellite launcher could be used as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to put a nuclear weapon on a target 13,000 miles away — i.e., anywhere in the United States. He also emphasized North Korea’s development and testing of submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Nuclear armed SLBMs could be launched to attack the United States from off our coasts — against which we have minimal if any defense. While dismissing the utility of economic inducements, Mr. Klinger emphasized the important potential role of diplomacy and recommended increased appropriate economic pressure, including needed help from China, a “reluctant partner.” He, too, supported deploying THAAD to protect South Korea against North Korea’s ballistic missiles.
Dr. Sue Mi Terry, Managing Director — Korea, Bower Group Asia, acknowledged the importance of last week’s test of a 20-30 kiloton nuclear device, North Korea’s largest to date, and noted its claim that a “nuclear warhead that has been standardized to be mounted on a strategic ballistic rockets of the Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Forces of the Korean People’s Army.” She noted this statement was likely intended to convey that the North can produce nuclear-armed missiles in quantity showing Pyongyang’s progress toward nuclear warhead miniaturization, directly threatening the United States. Although she noted that the diplomatic and economic efforts since the mid-1990s had failed to limit North Korea’s steady march toward nuclear armed missiles, she seemed to double down on sanctions, just larger sanctions. She argued to strengthen/increase the role of ballistic missile defenses in the region — including THAAD and Aegis BMD. And she urged greater efforts to gain China’s support in constraining North Korea. Her bottom line was that we need new leadership in North Korea, but offered no recipe for achieving that goal.
David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, argued that stopping the growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal must be given greater priority. At the same time, he argued we must accept that North Korea can strike its neighbors with nuclear weapons and is making progress on building a long-range nuclear-capable force — which he thought was still several more years away. He argued that success in limiting North Korea depends on China (which has been a source of key technology supporting North Korea’s progress); otherwise North Korea can ramp its current 12-20 nuclear weapons up to 50-100 nuclear weapons in the next five years, perhaps while proliferating its capabilities to others and increasing its provocations regionally. He observed that “North Korea appears to have a family of relatively reliable, miniaturized fission weapons with the destructive force rivaling the size of the Hiroshima blast that can use plutonium or weapon-grade uranium and fit on a number of ballistic missiles.” He noted that North Korea could field 100 KT weapons by 2020. While arguing for more sanctions, he seemed doubtful of any meaningful constraint and consequently that the objective of diplomacy should be to gain transparency to follow what North Korea is actually doing.
This was a sobering hearing, to be sure. However, it missed some very pertinent, even more alarming information — that should be, but apparently is not, well known: North Korea probably already poses existential threat to the American people.
In the first place, the combined testimony actually demonstrates this possibility. Mr. Klinger observed North Korean satellite launches already have demonstrated an ability to attack the United States with an ICBM — and Mr. Albright indicates North Korea already has 12-20 nuclear weapons, growing to 50-100 in the next five years. Dr. Sue Mi Terry cast some doubt on North Korea’s claim to have this nuclear-armed ICBM capability today, but others with greater expertise believe North Korea already has the ability to launch nuclear armed missiles and satellites—and that we should assume Iran also has that capability. (Click here and here.)
In any case, when North Korea is confident in that capability — and it may be already, it can use one of their ICBMs to detonate a nuclear weapon above the United States to create an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that shuts down the unhardened electric power grid for an extended period. Without electricity, most Americans would perish within a few months from starvation, disease and societal collapse.
U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) interceptors are designed to intercept a few North Korean ICBMs that approach the United States from over the North Polar region. But current U.S. BMD systems are not arranged to defend against even a single ICBM that approaches the United States from over the South Polar region, which is the direction toward which North Korea launches is satellites using the same rockets that compose its acknowledged ICBM capability. Hmmmmm.
This is not a new idea. The Soviets pioneered and tested just such a specific capability decades ago — we call it a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). (Click here for my first (April 11, 2014) discussion of this capability, which essentially had already been demonstrated by both North Korea and Iran — and what I believe we should be doing about it. While on the webpage, check on FOBS of the “Dropdown for Categories” for links to other pertinent messages. Click here for my most recent related message on February 23, 2016.)
So, North Korea doesn’t need an ICBM to create this existential threat. It could use its demonstrated satellite launcher to carry a nuclear weapon over the South Polar region and detonate it a few hundred miles over the United States to create a high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP). (It could accomplish this objective today, without assuring that its design of a reentry vehicle had been perfected.)
The result could be to shut down the U.S. electric power grid for an indefinite period, leading to the death within a year of up to 90-percent of all Americans — as the EMP Commissioners testified over eight years ago. Click here for the congressional record of this important July 10, 2008 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, with the Chairman of the EMP Commission, Dr. William R. Graham, as the primary witness with other Commissioners present.
I urge you to read this congressional record of that 2008 hearing — it is far more important than was last week’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, which provided no witness that referred to EMP, at least in their prepared testimony for the record.
Hopefully, the EMP Commission — reinstated by Congress almost a year ago — will soon receive its needed support from the Defense Department authorities so that these issues can again be subjected to true expert review. Since they were disbanded following their last (2008) report, neither the executive of legislative branches of our government have seriously addressed the recommendations of the EMP Commission.
And it appears that, as Congress meanders on its way to yet another Continuing Resolution while members are anxious to go home to campaign for re-election, the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act (CIPA) may again be stalled by the Senate for another year.
Meanwhile, North Korea has already demonstrated it could execute a very credible existential threat attack scenario at least twice by launching satellites southward so that they approach the United States from its undefended south. And so has Iran. They just need the nukes to make such an attack strategy feasible — and they may buy what they need from North Korea if they don’t already have all that they need.
Bottom line: While acknowledging this North Korean nuclear armed missile/satellite capability is imminent if not already extant, all witnesses at the House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing last week were silent on the likely associated existential EMP threat, at least in their prepared testimony.
This disappointing observation prompted me to refer to them as “whistling past the graveyard.”
So, what do you think? Were they 1) “Attempting to stay cheerful in a dire situation; proceeding with a task, ignoring an upcoming hazard, hoping for a good outcome;” or 2) ”Entering a situation with little or no understanding of the possible consequences.” . . .
Take your pick.
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