Key point: Any nuclear attack anywhere in the world would expose the hollow progress of human civilization, that despite all of the technology and medical advancements made over centuries, humans in the twenty-first century are as primitive as cavemen.
North Korea is the most difficult of targets for the U.S. intelligence community to unearth. Intelligence collection and analysis is an incredibly time-consuming and dangerous business, where it often takes months and maybe even years of patient rapport-building (and in some cases, blackmail) to recruit an agent or flip an adversary. The Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence don’t have that luxury with North Korea. What Washington does have is satellite imagery from above and electronic interception, but even Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats confessed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that “using that as an access to collection is—we get very limited results.”
We do, however, know one thing for certain: in the crazy scenario whereby Kim Jong-un orders his nuclear forces to launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM towards an American city (one, by the way, that would rest on the supposition that Kim is a lunatic who believes Washington would back down after an attack), President Donald Trump wouldn’t hesitate to retaliate with the “fury and fury” of America’s nuclear weapons arsenal. There probably wouldn’t even be a debate with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, or U.S. Strategic Command commander Gen. John Hyten. And if there was a discussion, it would focus on where, not whether, to hit North Korea.
Pyongyang, the capital city where millions live, would be the obvious target for a retaliatory nuclear strike. Kim Jong-un would likely be scurried away in a bunker somewhere with his sister and his senior generals long before Washington gave the order to the men and women who manage the U.S. nuclear triad to execute a launch, but that wouldn’t really matter. The purpose of a U.S. retaliatory attack would be to create so much destruction on North Korea’s military chain-of-command, its minuscule economy, its hereditary political system, and its physical existence as a nation that Kim Jong-un wouldn’t continue throwing nukes at the problem. Ideally, he wouldn’t have any more nukes to launch.