Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Case For Attacking North Korea

Over at the excellent new blog Shadow Government (written in part by my former dissertation adviser and professor Peter Feaver), Philip Zelikow has a fascinating and controversial post arguing that if North Korea tries to make good on its threat to test a long-range ballistic missile the US should attack and destroy the missile on the ground. Zelikow starts by hearkening back to 2006:

Rewind back two and a half years ago, to June 2006, when North Korea was preparing an earlier series of missile tests. Two of President Clinton's top defense officials, Ash Carter and Bill Perry, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, entitled: "If Necessary, Strike and Destroy: North Korea Cannot Be Allowed to Test this Missile." Carter and Perry analyzed that, if hit with a conventional weapon,

the multi-story, thin-skinned missile filled with high-energy fuel is itself explosive -- the U.S. airstrike would puncture the missile and probably cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Korea's nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.

At the time this essay was published, I was serving in the State Department. Secretary Rice had asked me to help advise on North Korea policy. My view in June 2006 was that this analysis was basically right but that their recommendation of military action was premature, for two reasons: (1) attainment of a long-range or intercontinental missile capability would require more tests, so this one did not place North Korea at the threshold of an operational capability; and (2) given point #1, it was better to use the test to draw a "red line" with support from the international community. Thus, the next time, the United States would be in a much stronger position to act with international support.

And indeed, North Korea's missile and nuclear tests in 2006 produced just such an international foundation for further action. First came UN Security Council Resolution 1695, adopted in July 2006. There, the Council stated, it "demands that the DPRK suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme." Then came UN Security Council Resolution 1718, adopted in October 2006. That resolution was more ominous. The Council now said it was acting under the UN Charter's Chapter VII, its provisions for dealing with threats to international peace and security. These can include collective military action and self-defense. Resolution 1718 limited itself to non-military measures, but in it, the Council said it "decides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching." This was imperative language, the strongest international action against North Korea since the 1953 Korean War armistice.

Now, however, the circumstances have changed:

In 2006, the United Nations drew a clear line, acting under Chapter VII of its Charter. Today, in 2009, the United States need not stand by and watch North Korea cross that line. Non-military measures were given a fair try. Now the political predicate for the Carter-Perry recommendations has been well laid.

The logical next step, after high-level discussions in the U.S. government and consultation with our allies, is to issue North Korea a warning to stand down (conveyed either directly, indirectly, or through a leak of planning to strike and destroy the missile). Pyongyang would either then stand down silently or they would not. We lose little from the warning if I'm right in estimating that the North Koreans cannot protect the test missile from a U.S. strike once they stand it up on the gantry. Our warning would be that, if you stand up the missile (itself a plain violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718), the United States will take it down. The North Korean perfection of a long-range nuclear missile capability against the United States, Japan, or the Republic of Korea would pose an imminent threat to the vital interests of our country.

If the United States strikes North Korea's missiles on their launch site, other would-be proliferators will take notice -- thus lending much greater weight to the fresh diplomatic initiatives the Obama administration has in mind. The downside, as in 2006, is the possibility of North Korean escalation against South Korea. The United States must consider its own security, the security of its Japanese ally, and the security of its South Korean ally. Ideally, all should arrive at a common understanding of what must be done to protect their long-term security.

Fascinating stuff.

North Korea is clearly trying to probe President Obama to see what he is made of. It is vital that he react firmly and decisively. Even if North Korean proliferation is, at this point, a fait accompli, it is not too late to prevent the deployment and testing of the delivery system that would not only threaten the US but Japan, China, Russia, India, and many other states. I whole-heartedly agree with Zelikow's assessment and prescription. Let's hope Obama does as well.


Anonymous said...

I also agree. Even if the weapon is conventional...the devastation it would cause, especially on large urban areas within Asia, would be catastrophic. As you said, I hope Obama does the right thing.

Matt said...

Provocative and persuasive post. I think your analysis, and that which you quoted, outstanding.

Matt Bondy


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