The North Korean missile launch brings with it an unmistakable sense of déjà vu. We have seen the movie over and over: We saw it in 1993 and 1994, again in 1998, and again in 2006 and 2007. The pattern follows a predictable course:
First Pyongyang announces to the world its intention to take a certain action: a missile test, a nuclear test, the resumption of plutonium production. The U.S. president declares that such an action would be “provocative,” the secretary of state warns that there will be “consequences,” and the U.N. ambassador announces that the issue will go to the Security Council.
Then North Korea carries out the act. The president and others condemn it and seek a Security Council resolution. Within hours, anonymous U.S. diplomats are cited in the media suggesting that the act was not all that provocative, and that our real goal must be to get North Korea back to the negotiating table.
Within weeks or months, North Korea is given major concessions in exchange for returning to diplomatic talks. While the return is trumpeted as a major diplomatic breakthrough, the talks stall because Pyongyang will not abandon the type of actions that it has learned will produce positive results for the regime.
Beyond expected future concessions, North Korea can count a number of benefits from its most recent test. Whether or not it was successful as a satellite launch, the test contributes significantly to North Korea’s ballistic-missile capability. Its missile designers will learn from it — and improve the North’s long-range-missile force. This is a necessary step toward developing the capability to target U.S. cities.
The test also demonstrates North Korea’s capability to build long-range ballistic missiles, sending a signal to prospective customers that Pyongyang may soon be opening a new product line. North Korea has long been the number-one exporter of ballistic missiles. In fact, Pyongyang will sell anything it produces — as evidenced not only by its missile sales and illicit activities, but also by its contributions to Syria’s nuclear program. In the missile context, North Korea and Iran are tied together at the hip. Tehran has traditionally been Pyongyang’s largest customer for missiles and missile technology that supports Iran’s indigenous military program. Iran, like North Korea, uses missiles to intimidate its neighbors and is seeking greater delivery capabilities alongside its pursuit of the nuclear weapons themselves.
In addition, the missile launch is a major test of President Obama. North Korean leaders will certainly make assessments of the new president’s resolve based on how he reacts to what he described as a provocative act. Will he be able to mobilize his much-lauded “world community” to take action? Will he push back on Russia and China to achieve meaningful sanctions? Will he seek to use the Proliferation Security Initiative and the counter-proliferation financial tools that have proven useful against North Korea — but that the Bush administration abandoned to encourage Pyongyang to return to the Six Party Talks following its nuclear test? Or will the president be satisfied with a few days of rhetoric before falling back into the old pattern? North Korea, Iran, and other proliferators are waiting for the answer.
Unfortunately, the administration’s response suggests there will be little to back up the predictable role-playing in the theater of the absurd. Once again, the president’s timing has been impeccable. Almost simultaneous with the launch, he gave a major speech in Prague identifying nuclear proliferation as the most dangerous contemporary threat. Obama pledged new support for some old arms-control ideas, but the administration appears determined to terminate or starve the very programs that are essential for countering the threat: missile defense. For if the missile launch shows the impotence of diplomacy, at least as it has been practiced, it also shows the importance of missile defense for crisis stability, reassurance of allies, and protection against real-world threats.
On crisis stability, missile defense — in the form of ground-based interceptors — provided a less escalatory, and much preferable, option for dealing with the missile (if it came in our direction) than an offensive strike. On reassurance of friends and allies, the U.S.-Japan relationship on missile defense — which grew out of North Korea’s first Taepodong launch in August 1998 — gave Japanese leaders both confidence that the U.S. stood with them and an option for protecting their territory from harm.
In terms of defense, the threats of war North Korea issued almost daily are instructive. We were told that, if the U.S. or Japan intercepted the launch, North Korea would attack what it called major targets — clearly a reference to ballistic-missile attacks carried out with the hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles already in the North’s inventory. In the future, the North intends to have a long-range capability as well — making it able to strike the United States directly. While the usual NGOs are putting out the usual assessments that North Korea remains years away from mating a long-range missile with a nuclear warhead, they too need to play their part in the theater of the absurd. More significantly, the intelligence community assessed nearly a decade ago that the North had already demonstrated the capability to deliver a small payload to intercontinental range and that it possessed one or two nuclear weapons.
The United States must build defenses, including against long-range missiles. We cannot do this with systems like Patriot, THAAD, and Aegis alone. We need interceptors deployed in Alaska and California to deal with North Korea — and in Europe to deal with Iran. We also need to ensure we keep up with the threat as it evolves by investing in future capabilities. Lowering our investment in defenses is incredibly out of step with the real world.
– Robert Joseph is former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.