There is a way to slow down North Korea’s missile program and there is no need to launch any military attack on the Pyongyang regime.
Right now there is growing worry about North Korea’s nuclear program and its burgeoning arsenal of short, medium and long range missiles, including alleged ICBMs. While the North Koreans have not demonstrated conclusively their ability to hit a target with their missile, or even cover the range many experts seem to think is possible with their new long range rocket, there is no doubt that practice makes perfect.
That’s why every time there is another North Korean missile launch, inexorably the North Korean engineers are getting farther along in the development process. Keep in mind that Russia was able to launch a Sputnik on a heavy rocket into low earth orbit in 1957, 60 years ago. The Russians are good at rockets. Between 1957 and 1961 the Russians showed off their R-7 ICBM which, while never deployed made it clear the Russians were ready to put nuclear missiles on their long range systems. Sputnik was launched by a variant of the same rocket, and the Iranians have just tried to launch a space rocket of their own called the Simorgh, probably a variant of North Korea’s newest long range system. It blew up shortly after launch.
Iran’s launch was not its first try; it managed to put seven small satellites in orbit previously. But this newest launch attempt was a rocket that can carry a satellite of some 250 KG weight, enough to also carry a single miniaturized nuclear warhead. It is probably the same size as the target miniature warhead the North Koreans claim they are building.
If both North Korea and its best customer Iran have the same objective, countries threatened by them have to consider what action to take.
There has been a lot of talk in the United States and in Japan of the need to either negotiate a solution with North Korea, or if one is not found go ahead and destroy both the missile bases and nuclear facilities in Korea.
In the short term, both military solutions are not too likely. The South Koreans just elected a sort of “peace” government that does not want to run war risks. While the U.S. could act without the North Koreans, the Japanese are not enthusiastic either, since North Korean intermediate missiles can hit Japanese targets. Nor does China or Russia support any military action by the United States or anyone else.
This leaves a conundrum not easily remedied.
There are two partial solutions that can prove helpful. One I have already written about, which is to have a government in exile for North Korea to replace the Kim dictatorship. Others, especially Michael Ledeen have proposed that the United States get behind the opposition in Iran and lend them credible support. The Obama administration went in the exact opposite direction in respect to both North Korea and Iran. Will Trump do otherwise? He may, because this is too juicy a proactive opportunity to walk away from.
The benefit of killing North Korean launches is that the North Koreans will have trouble being sure their missiles work as planned. To add to the effort, the U.S. could also jam their telemetry and even try and blank out North Korean tracking radars.
An additional benefit to the United States (and its allies) is we get to test and perfect our anti-missile systems under real life conditions.
A final benefit is that we never know if a North Korean launch is a test, or if the missile is live with a warhead on it. We therefore have every justification in the world, starting with self-preservation to shoot down North Korean missiles.
Stephen Bryen served as a senior staff director of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as the deputy under secretary of defense for trade security policy, as the founder and first director of the Defense Technology Security Administration, as the President of Delta Tech Inc., as the President of Finmeccanica North America, and as a Commissioner of the U.S. China Security Review Commission.