July 3, 1955 was an exciting day for CIA spooks and U.S. military intelligence officers in Moscow. Eagerly scanning the skies at the annual Tushino Air Show outside the city, at which the secretive Soviet military offered glimpses of their aerial arsenal, they watched 10 huge jet bombers of a previously unseen model roar overhead. After a short interval came another eighteen. That evening, urgent coded messages to Washington detailed the appearance of no less than 28 of these menacing craft, strategic weapons clearly capable of nuclear attacks on the continental U.S. Excited news commentators termed the display “A shock to the complacent; a spur to the alert.” Extrapolating assumptions of Soviet aircraft production rates, intelligence analysts reported that the Soviets would have a force of no less than 800 Bisons by 1960.
In reality, those initial 10 planes at Tushino had merely flown out of sight and then, joined by eight others, turned and flown back for a repeat performance over the credulous spooks. In any case, the bombers lacked range and were therefore incapable of flying to the U.S. and back. Nikita Khrushchev later recorded that the plane’s designer suggested to him that the bombers could land in Mexico. “What do your think Mexico is—our mother-in-law?” retorted the-then Soviet leader. “You think we can go calling whenever we want?” In the event, very few models of the dreaded Bison were ever produced, and it was shortly dropped from the Soviet inventory. Nevertheless, it had played a key role in fomenting the infamous “bomber gap,” that bestowed a Niagara of financial largesse on Air Force budgets and contractor balance-sheets until superseded by the even more bountiful (and fraudulent) “missile gap.” Interestingly, Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire “Dr. Strangelove” invoked a “mineshaft gap”, but in the late 1970s there was actually a fierce argument in intelligence circles regarding the possible existence of a “civil defense gap.”
Lest anyone think that the heroic days of threat inflation ended with the Soviet Union, the North Korean missile program provides reassurance on an ongoing basis. Even when tensions recede, official assumptions that North Korea is relentlessly advancing its strategic capabilities persist unchallenged. This is not a recent phenomenon. The specter of the Korean threat began growing in intensity not long after the old U.S.S.R. disintegrated into ruin. Indeed, the ground had been laid at least as long ago as the early 1980s. According to Chas Freeman, a first-hand observer as deputy chief of mission in Beijing at the time, Paul Wolfowitz, then assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, sabotaged a 1982 Chinese initiative for a final peace settlement on the Korean peninsula by ensuring that the proposal was not relayed to Washington. When the Chinese made a follow-up enquiry, he suppressed that too. This ensured that the North Koreans’ nuclear and strategic missile ambitions would remain a live issue.
In 1998, Wolfowitz’s future partner in geopolitical crime, Donald Rumsfeld, chaired a Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States. (In 1995 the CIA had issued an estimate, unwelcome to neocon defense hawks, that there was no such missile threat to the U.S.) Rumsfeld’s commission duly reported a growing threat from “rogue” nations—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, armed with ballistic missiles that could reach the United States. As is so often the case, the North Koreans cooperated by testing a missile, the Taepodong 1, shortly after the report was issued. The test was a failure—the third stage broke up—but few paid attention to such details. The CIA recalled its duty and soon reported that the North Koreans might test an intercontinental missile “at any time.” Congress celebrated this certification of the threat by passing the National Missile Defense Act, mandating a missile defense shield for the U.S.
By now, North Korea was an officially designated threat, ready to be invoked whenever the need arose. Just prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, CIA Director George Tenet testified to congress that “we are on high alert” due to the “proliferation of nuclear and chemical and biological weapons, in particular in Iraq and North Korea.” The Koreans meanwhile obligingly propelled themselves ballistically into the headlines at intervals with further tests of technologically primitive liquid fueled rockets—essentially venerable Scud missiles in various combinations. Even when tensions are ratcheted down in temporary lulls, assumptions of alleged enemy technological prowess persist undisturbed.
As in Cold War times, maximum performance in boosting the threat required the cooperation of complaisant journalists. On August 22, for example, the New York Times ran a multi-bylined article that opened with the forthright declaration that “North Korea is speeding (my emphasis) toward a goal it has sought for decades: The ability to hit a major American city with a nuclear weapon.” The piece highlighted alleged Korean progress in range—supposedly powerful enough to reach the western U.S. (with “Chicago and Denver also potentially in range”)—with guidance, accuracy, and nuclear warhead miniaturization, all couched in a faux-skeptical tone the better to lend weight to the overall alarmist conclusion prefigured in the opening sentence.
The article was prompted by recent tests of the Hwasong-14, the three-stage missile supposedly capable of reaching the continental U.S. with a nuclear warhead on board thanks, according to the Times, to “a powerful new engine.” This turned out to be the RD-250, a liquid-fueled rocket engine developed in the U.S.S.R. in 1965 and covertly acquired by the North Koreans some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The July 28 Hwasong 14 test achieved a height of some 2,700 kilometers, rising almost straight up before plummeting down into the Sea of Japan. A graphic in the Times article effortlessly translated this as proof that the missile, if guided on a shallower trajectory, could have reached the American mid-west. But the test proved no such thing, at least not without knowing accurately the weight of the warhead on the test vehicle, the engine burn rate, and other details that the Koreans have kept to themselves. Invoking a threat to Chicago therefore involves “modeling” the tested missile with the most favorably assumed attributes of power and weight. As it was, the missile could have had an empty warhead, or at least carried nothing equivalent to the bulky dimensions and weight of a half-ton North Korean bomb. Should the North Koreans have mastered the art of miniaturizing their nuclear weapons, the task of targeting the U.S. might be within reach. But there is no evidence that they have done so, apart from a photo—dutifully featured by the Times—of Kim Jong Un inspecting a shiny, basketball-sized globe that might just as easily have been a disco ball.
Large or small, the chances of a Korean warhead surviving re-entry appear to be slim, since Kim’s scientists have apparently failed to develop a warhead that does not break up as it plummets down through the thickening atmosphere. A Hwasong 14 warhead was actually caught by a Japanese TV camera in the moment of disintegration in July, a fact conceded by the Times, although the authors efficiently located a proliferation expert to attest that “Even if it did break up, it may not mean anything.” The Hwasong 12 that overflew Japan in recent days appears to have suffered from the usual re-entry breakup problems.
Could a North Korean warhead that miraculously survived re-entry land anywhere near its target? We have no idea what the test firings are aimed at, so it seems silly to make predictions. The Times suggests that they could be accurate to within “two or three miles”, based on early U.S. ICBM tests. But those were missiles fired over a single, extremely precisely mapped, oft-repeated flightpath from California to the Kwajalein lagoon in the Pacific, with wind, gravitational anomalies, and other pertinent sources of error exactly measured over the entire trajectory. Nor is it sensible to estimate the yield of a Korean bomb, as the Times unblushingly does, based on seismic data measured a very long distance from the test site. Such data is only usable if we know accurately how deeply the test-bomb has been buried, and therefore how far the shockwave has travelled, and through what kind of rock formations. But the Koreans have once again failed to tell us.
In the world of threat inflation, none of this really matters. Instead we have the logic of the Marx Brothers. In “Animal Crackers” Chico suggests that a stolen painting might be in the house next door. “Suppose there isn’t any house next door,” says Groucho. “Well,” replies Chico, “then of course, we gotta build one.”
Andrew Cockburn is the Washington Editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author of five nonfiction books, including Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (2016). He has written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Playboy, Vanity Fair, and National Geographic, among other publications. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.