The Corner

Obama and the Imminent North Korea Missile Launch

Now that the Dems are in charge of the national defense, North Korea’s planned missile launch, which could occur sometime in the next several weeks, is a good time to recall what some leading Democrats said about this a few years ago. The very last time we were in this situation was in the summer of 2006. Just as North Korea was fueling the missiles for test-launch, William Perry and Ashton Carter, respectively secretary of defense and assistant secretary of defense under Clinton, advocated preemptive strikes on the platforms in a striking op-ed in the Washington Post. “Intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy,” they wrote:

Therefore, if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. The blast would be similar to the one that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq.

Two things are different today: First of all, we no longer have a president whose low approval ratings create severe limitations on his freedom of action. Obama has much greater political elbow-room (at home and abroad) when it comes to foreign-policy options. Second, we have missile defenses available today that hadn’t been fielded in 2006 which create a new and far less risky alternative to pre-emptive strikes on the platforms, namely that of shooting the North Korean missiles down after they launch. Earlier this month, Admiral Keating, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, made it clear that the missiles North Korean planned to launch could be shot down.

The U.S. and Japan have jointly invested billions of dollars in outfitting their navy destroyers with the Aegis missile defense system. The Aegis interceptor, called the Standard Missile III, was used last year to destroy an errant satellite in orbit. It is perhaps the most successful and (among the military) the most popular of the missile defense capabilities. (For a summary of U.S. missile defense programs, see The Imperative of Missile Defense, a paper I was involved in preparing last year while on the staff of the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee. For more, see the website of the Missile Defense Agency).

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reacted forcefully already, saying that the U.S. will consider North Korea’s missile launch, in violation of Security Council resolutions, as a “provocation.” This seems an unusually strong term for U.S. diplomatic practice, although it is in keeping with the attitude of former Clinton administration officials towards North Korea. One can also imagine that this issue came up during Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Japan. Japan is perhaps the country the feels most threatened by North Korea and is certainly the one most appalled by its behavior. Furthermore, the Aegis systems currently deployed by the U.S. and Japanese navies are integrated at least in the sense that they use some of the same radars.

Long story short, there is a very real prospect of a strong reaction to any North Korean missile launch, and at least a theoretical possibility that any such action would be a joint U.S.-Japanese operation. Whatever else one may say, the looming North Korea missile launch may be considered the first crisis of Obama’s National Security Council. How he acts may be a signal of how he intends to steer U.S. foreign policy in the years ahead.

Mario Loyola, a former adviser at the Pentagon and in the U.S. Senate, is a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


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