What does the increased pace of the Norks’ bellicosity mean?
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President Obama said he’s confident we could defend ourselves against any North Korean missile attack. And he’s probably right, at least for now.
North Korea hasn’t yet mated a nuclear warhead to a missile capable of hitting the United States. But they will achieve that capability sooner or later. And our missile defenses are far from foolproof. Obama isn’t going to allow them to be developed much beyond the point they are in now. Cutting military spending affects missile defense along with everything else, and Obama is no fan of the program.
So what do we do? In June 2006 — having witnessed the failure of his “Agreed Framework” — former defense secretary Bill Perry (with Ashton Carter, now deputy defense secretary) wrote a revealing op-ed in the Washington Post. After ritually deriding Bush’s pre-emptive war doctrine and the Iraq War, Perry and Carter argued strongly for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea’s missile launch facility to destroy its Taepodong missile on the launch pad.
President Bush never ordered the strike, and Obama isn’t about to do that now. Obama is dedicated to permitting the UN to control our actions, and neither China nor Russia would endorse any military action against North Korea. If North Korea began readying another long-range missile for launch, we could — and should — do what Perry suggested in 2006: launch a cruise missile or other conventionally armed missile and destroy the Norks’ missile on the launch pad. But we won’t.
What will come depends entirely on North Korean calculations of their own weaknesses and ours. And this is where it gets complicated.
If Kim’s generals wanted to force us to bribe them into another missile moratorium, they might launch a missile at the oil-rich Senkaku Islands off Japan which are uninhabited and the ownership of which is disputed by China. Would Japan have to respond militarily in defense of the islands, possibly drawing China into a conflict with Japan? Would we, under our mutual defense agreement with Japan, be drawn in too?
If the Norks wanted to force us into some other agreement they might take an aggressive act against South Korea. That would be as big a gamble, because the South Koreans — their capital only a few miles from the DMZ — would be more likely to strike back with air strikes or more, again drawing us in.
For Obama, the North Korean mess is a spectator sport. We’ll wait, and watch what goes on without trying to influence the events. If we had a president more interested in foreign affairs, he would now be answering Kim’s rhetoric with restatements of our commitment to defend not only our homeland but also those of Japan and South Korea. When North Korea was a non-nuclear power, their threats could be brushed off. That is a luxury we no longer enjoy.
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