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Thursday, June 22, 2006

North Korean missile test

Much of the world assumes that North Korea is preparing to test a relatively long-range ballistic missile.

Former Clinton administration Secretary of Defense William Perry and Harvard's Ash Carter think that the US should announce its intent to "preempt" the test via a cruise missile strike. Their op-ed ran in today's Washington Post:
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. But the effect on the Taepodong would be devastating. 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.
The authors make clear in the article that they believe the US should follow through on this warning, which would simply provide notice to North Korea to evacuate its personnel from the facility.

What Perry and Carter do not discuss is coercive diplomacy. Could the US get the North Koreans to cancel a missile test via such a threat? Would the warning itself be a good policy?

Has this op-ed, written by a former Secretary of Defense, already served as a subtle form of coercive diplomacy?

Maybe. A more overt official US threat would be a huge roll of the dice, requiring a careful balancing of risks versus benefits. The truth is that North Korea is a really weak state that may be nuclear-armed. What are its options should the US attack? North Korea might be able to pursue some policies that make the US feel less secure about the relationship than it does now...but not too many short of launching actual attacks.

Frankly, I think the US could only make this warning with a pathway for last-minute diplomacy as well. Could the US offer a "Cuba option" security guarantee in exchange for North Korean non-proliferation?

Again, maybe. I doubt the Bush administration is very interested in this.

What would be the worst policy? Some would say the US must not warn of a threat and then fail to follow through. If the US warns North Korea of an impending attack and North Korea ignores it, then the US would arguably need to attack to preserve its credibility for future crises. I would note that some recent scholarship disputes this assessment.

Unfortunately, as Perry and Carter point out, the 6 nation talks have virtually collapsed though diplomacy might have averted the current "crisis." The defensive missile system the US just activated is not a great bet to work against missile threats. The test results have not been all that promising.

An announced impeding strike would be a bold and somewhat risky policy decision, but the provocative op-ed is definitely worth a read.

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