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Late last month, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats called North Korea’s nuclear weapons program a “potential existential threat to the United States.” Coats hedges a bit by throwing in the modifier “potentially,” but he has spoken this way before. Unless he has spectacular secret information, this is woefully inaccurate. North Korea is a growing threat to the United States with its nuclear missile program, and it is indeed an existential threat to South Korea and Japan. But the threat Pyongyang poses to the United States is not actually existential as, for example, Russian and Chinese nuclear arsenals are. And is unlikely to become so.
Language is important here. North Korea is a indeed a threat to the United States, but it is a greater threat to America's regional allies. Pyongyang’s ability to strike the United States with a nuclear warhead is, after all, still hotly disputed. Hitting the United States with a missile is not the same as hitting the it with a reentry-survivable nuclear warhead that could evade U.S. missile defense. Nor, even, does one or two or a dozen North Korean nuclear strikes on the American mainland constitute an “existential” threat.
Scenario - North - Korea - Existence - United
Such a scenario would be terrible, but for North Korea to actually threaten the existence of the United States would take dozens of nuclear strikes across almost all of America’s major cities. The humanitarian costs of even one nuclear detonation would be enormous, of course, and the national psychological shock would be akin to nothing in U.S. history, bar perhaps the Civil War. But this is not the same thing as hitting the United States hard enough that its society begins to fragment and its government collapse. DNI Coats does not use those terms, but presumably that is what an “existential” threat is. Large numbers of...
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