Will North Korea test-launch its Taepodong 2 missile? And if North Korea were to do so, what should be the U.S. response?
Although earlier reports from Japan and South Korea discounted the possibility, a provocation of this magnitude is not out of step with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s regime. In 1998, it test-fired an earlier-generation missile, supposedly in an attempt to launch a satellite. The missile flew over Japan, prompting shock and outrage from the Japanese government. In addition, North Korea has engaged periodically in acts of sabotage, assassination and terrorism in the past.
North Korea has learned that international extortion pays. In light of the incentives or concessions the U.S. and its Western allies offered to Iran recently, Kim’s regime may have calculated that fomenting a “crisis” may indeed garner the attention and aid it craves.
While the prospect of North Korea’s missile launch has increased tension in the region, it presents the United States with a unique opportunity. Should North Korea foolishly overplay its hand and test-launch Taepodong 2, the attention it receives will not be the kind it has sought.
Such an action would further demoralize the appeasement-friendly administration of South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, whose political party is imploding due to a crushing defeat in local elections. A provocative North Korean missile test will further strengthen the pro-American, anti-appeasement conservative party in South Korea, and boost its candidate in next year’s South Korean presidential election.
Similarly, Japanese politicians advocating a tougher stance against North Korea and an increased Japanese military role in the security structure of East Asia will gain favor. Since the Japanese public is already deeply disturbed by past kidnappings of its citizens by North Korean intelligence agents and the violation of its territory by the last missile test, the Japanese government is unlikely to tolerate a further provocation.
In contrast, China has been utterly unhelpful to the U.S. regarding North Korea, despite the fact that North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile developments could not have occurred without Chinese acquiescence and “willful neglect.” A missile launch would be an ideal occasion to put pointed diplomatic pressure on China to cooperate with the U.S. to curb the North Korean menace.
Given these conditions, the American message to North Korea should be a diplomatic equivalent of, “Go ahead, launch it and see what happens.”
What is vital, however, is that should North Korea launch the missile, the U.S. must not overplay the advantages thusly derived from the situation. The recommendations to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea or destroy the missile on the ground in North Korean territory would be psychologically gratifying, no doubt, but is not advisable. Such a move would forfeit all the diplomatic leverages; the U.S., not North Korea, would now be seen as overreacting and being belligerent, while North Korea would play the victim card of having been attacked by the U.S.
Instead, what the U.S. ought to do is declare a North Korean missile test a grave provocation and an unacceptable threat to both the U.S. and East Asian regional security, and establish a quarantine of all transport in and out of North Korea. Tokyo will likely join the U.S. and even contribute naval and air elements for the effort. Seoul may not participate actively, but will acquiesce in the end.
Crucially, the U.S. should use the occasion to present Beijing with an ultimatum as “Nuclear Showdown” author Gordon Chang has suggested to make the continued Sino-American economic and trade relationship contingent upon China’s cooperation to disarm North Korea.
Once a quarantine is in place, the U.S. should convey a simple message to Pyongyang that the quarantine will not end until North Korea backs down first. For once, it will be North Korea’s turn to give something in return for reverting to the status quo.
But won’t the North Koreans escalate? They previously declared that a quarantine would be an act of war. Would they not initiate a military conflict?
They will not, because such a conflict would be the death of Kim’s regime and the end of North Korea as a state. Pyongyang has far more to lose.
For too long, North Korea has played chicken with the U.S. and has won. A North Korean missile launch would be, finally, the right moment for the U.S. to play chicken with North Korea and win.