Why would North Korea prepare to test a long-range missile in plain sight of U.S. satellites and the world? There is much head-scratching over that, but it really shouldn’t be a mystery. Aggressive and erratic behavior is pretty much what the North Korean economy is based on. It is what has allowed Pyongyang to extort aid from the rest of the world as a prop to its criminal regime.
The proper response is to make it clear to the North Koreans that we aren’t playing that game anymore. That means eschewing the Clinton approach of shoveling help to North Korea in the hope of ending the provocations. It also means using our missile-defense system against a North Korean missile launch, should it come to that.
The Taepodong-2 missile has the range to reach at least Alaska and Hawaii, and the gravity of a nuclear North Korea having this technology should go without saying. There is a wide expanse of ocean where such a test launch could fall harmlessly, but, on the other hand, the missile also could be directed toward U.S. territory. If it is (the North Koreans never issue the customary “notice to airmen and sailors” about the intended path of their ICBM tests), the Bush administration would be in the odd position of taking a lunatic regime’s word for it that a missile headed in our direction is innocently intended.
This puts us in an intolerable position, and if the missile comes within the performance envelope of our nascent missile-defense system, we should try to shoot it down. We currently have eleven ground-based interceptors deployed at two sites in Alaska and California, and have reportedly switched the system from test mode to operational. The political fallout from an attempted shoot-down that failed would be enormous, of course. But confidence in the current system — based on the approach of immediately attaining whatever capability is plausible now, and up-grading over time — has risen steadily in the last year among those with direct knowledge of it.
There certainly isn’t any magic solution in sight. North Korea will continue to be a threat as long as the Communists govern it. The extraordinarily multilateral six-party talks that began in 2003 have, unsurprisingly, failed to make any significant progress toward dismantling North Korea’s nuclear capability. All we can do is to try to keep up the pressure on the regime.
Besides international extortion, it is heavily dependent on income generated by illegal activities such as counterfeiting and drug trafficking. The U.S. should increase its naval presence around North Korea and step up its naval-interdiction policies by boarding more smugglers’ ships and confiscating their cash and contraband. We should also undertake aggressive legal action to freeze North Korea’s black-market-related financial assets that reside in foreign countries.
The larger diplomatic challenge lies in uniting other key countries around the goal of isolating North Korea. China and South Korea are especially important, since they are the primary suppliers of aid and comfort to the regime in Pyongyang. We should continue to push them to stop coddling Pyongyang, but the chances aren’t good of making them budge. They both like the stability — such as it is — of the status quo on the Korean peninsula, and the Chinese don’t mind the diplomatic and security headache Pyongyang represents for us.
So, we have no choice but to continue to upgrade our ability to defend ourselves. In that connection, the recent decision of the House to cut the administration’s requested funding for ten additional missile-defense interceptors, and for a new launch site in Europe is especially shortsighted. Ground-based interceptors can take up to two years to install, making it difficult to suddenly reverse course and build more as the North Korean and other threats mature. The administration should be keeping its eye on the ticking political clock, focusing its missile-defense effort in the waning years of the second term on funding and deploying as many interceptors as possible.
As for the immediate threat, it is very unlikely the North Koreans would put something nasty atop their missile. But this is another North Korean gambit in coercive diplomacy in which the message is most important. With the test, the North Koreans want to tell us, “We can threaten you.” We should try to say back, through a defense, “No, you can’t.”