The Obama administration just lost Round 1 in its diplomatic engagement with North Korea. Despite White House pleas for Pyongyang not to violate United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSC) 1718, which bans North Korea from launching ballistic missiles, Pyongyang has finished its preparations to launch a “peaceful” space-launch vehicle, a system that is indistinguishable from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Aggravating the insult, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a delegation of 15 senior Iranian launch experts from the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group to help out. Pyongyang announced it will fire the rocket sometime between April 4 and 8.
The nuclear- and missile-proliferation implications of these antics are serious. The launch flagrantly violates the UNSC resolution. That resolution was the UN’s response to North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and its nuclear test of October 16, 2006. North Korea and Iran — both of which remain in violation of their International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear-safeguards obligations under the NPT — are clearly testing how serious the U.S. and its allies are about blocking the further spread of nuclear weapons. Now that they have thrown down the gauntlet, the question is what do we intend to do.
In the short term, the answer is not much. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained on Fox News last Sunday, “I think if we had an aberrant missile, one that was headed for Hawaii . . . or something like that, we might consider [shooting it down]. . . . But I don’t think we have any plans to do anything like that at this point.” The State Department, meanwhile, is reported to be most concerned that the North Korean rocket launch could torpedo current multilateral talks with Pyongyang aimed at disabling North Korea’s existing nuclear facilities.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and Under Secretary of Defense–designate Ashton Carter, who, during the last North Korean missile-test crisis, urged pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang’s launch pad, are now, not surprisingly, silent. After all, launching a pre-emptive strike would be sure to start another shooting war — something the Obama administration has plenty of already.
In any case, all of this begs the question: Precisely what should the Obama administration do to reduce the likelihood of more “peaceful” space launches of this sort? What should it do to isolate states like North Korea and Iran that flout the rules and to defend against such violators in the future?
Three things come to mind.
First, the U.S. should make a serious effort to persuade like-minded states with missile defenses that they should develop a much more reliable capability to shoot down nuclear-capable missiles fired by NPT-violating states — i.e., states that are in noncompliance with their NPT obligations or that have withdrawn before coming into full compliance with them.
The key aim here would be to strengthen the NPT, which is up for review in May 2010, by putting teeth into its enforcement and into IAEA inspections, which the NPT requires. So far, the toughest suggestion NPT and IAEA supporters have made is to require violating states to return the civilian nuclear goods they imported — a highly improbable event. However, if states with missile defenses agreed to direct those defenses against violators’ launches of nuclear-capable missiles, that would give these violating states a real incentive to come back into compliance. The U.S. should take the lead in seeking international consensus on this proposition.
An additional aim of such an initiative would be to encourage the development of practical missile defenses that could be deployed near the states of concern and that could destroy a nuclear-capable missile either before or as soon as it left the air space of the country that launched it. Currently, the U.S., Russia, Japan, South Korea, and Israel lack a reliable capability to do this. Instead, they have either terminal or area defenses that can protect their own territories or a specified potential target from being hit.
However, there has long been discussion of systems that could be locally deployed on large unmanned aircraft linked to appropriate sensor and battle-management systems. Most recently, critics of the missile-defense system proposed by the Bush administration — which would have relied on fixed installations in Poland and the Czech Republic — have urged quick development of the airborne-defense concept as a much more desirable way to deal with rocket launches out of North Korea and Iran. The Obama administration would be wise to develop such capabilities as a way not only to address the next North Korean or Iranian launch, but also to encourage the members of the UNSC to back a resolution regarding missile defenses against NPT and IAEA violators.