As North Korea makes initial preparations for a possible launch of a three-stage missile that could in theory reach the United States, a fascinating debate has erupted in the United States over what to do about it. But what is most important now is not to focus on the specifics of this possible missile test. Rather, we need to use the current mini-crisis as a moment to reflect again on the broader danger we face in dealing with North Korea dating back at least three years — and in another sense more than 50 years. Our North Korea policy is a mess, North Korea’s actions are egregious and unacceptable, and we need to figure out a better approach before North Korea’s nuclear status becomes formalized and effectively irreversible.
First, a word on the recent debate over the missile dilemma. Keeping with its longstanding preference to downplay North Korean misbehavior, the Bush administration has been fairly quiet about U.S. options, only intimating that it could try to shoot down the missile if it passes near American territory and within range of the recently deployed national missile defense system based primarily in Alaska and California. But two top former Clinton administration defense officials, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Assistant Secretary Ash Carter, have recently suggested that the United States destroy the North Korean Taepdong 2 rocket on the launch pad if the DPRK regime took further steps to prepare it for launch.
This proposal is provocative and serious. Messrs. Perry and Carter provide several reasons why the strike could make sense. First, North Korea, clearly an outlaw state and probably the world’s last Stalinist regime, would be violating a moratorium it declared in the late 1990s on missile testing, legitimating an American response in Messrs. Perry and Carter’s eyes. Second, the test would clearly be a provocation — perhaps designed to coerce the United States into direct bilateral negotiations — and as such warrants no protection as the independent action of a sovereign state. Third, North Korea tends to sell weapons it is good at producing, meaning that this missile might be marketed after a successful test. Fourth, and most importantly of all, North Korea has blatantly disregarded its obligations not to pursue nuclear weapons. It has in the last three years probably quadrupled its nuclear inventory to about eight weapons, violating various treaties and other commitments in the process. In this light, any improvement in North Korea’s missile force brings the DPRK one step closer to being able to credibly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack (even if North Korea might have other ways to deliver nuclear weapons against the United States or its regional friends).
As powerful as the Carter/Perry idea appears, we do not support it at this time. There are two main reasons. First, though a North Korean missile test would be dangerous, it is not as serious as the DPRK’s nuclear shenanigins of recent years — and would not pose as direct or urgent a threat to the United States. Thus it does not clearly meet the necessary threshold for preemptive action.
Second, it would occur in the context of an inattentive, confused, and unpopular U.S. North Korea policy. Only Japan, among major regional players, has been supportive of the Bush administration’s basic North Korea policy, which has been a muddled combination of the ideas of those seeking regime change in the North and those seeking to give talks a real try. (This debate has been unfortunate; while it is true that regime change would be the best option for North Korea, it is unattainable through any policy levers within credible reach of Washington, and it is regrettable that the Bush administration has not clearly recognized as much.) In this context, striking North Korea preemptively would probably isolate the United States more than Pyongyang. It could throw the US-ROK alliance into serious jeopardy. It would complicate, not ease, our ability to make progress on the real threat, which is the North’s nuclear weapons program.
Our North Korea policy should not be consumed by debates over whether the latest North Korean offense should lead us to cut off talks for a few more months, or meet only in one setting rather than another, or offer somewhat soothing words to Pyongyang rather than combative ones. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has often been transfixed by such procedural questions. Instead, the administration should build its North Korea policy around the notion that we need to present Pyongyang with a choice — improve its behavior, reform its country, and engage with the world, or retreat further into isolation and lose many of the benefits it enjoys now (especially from South Korea and China, to the tune of more than $2 billion a year in aid and trade). We should focus on substance, not process; on core values, not tactical judgments.
To make this policy workable, we need to make it appealing in Beijing and Seoul. That means offering enough positive inducements, should North Korea be willing to try the path of reform that Vietnam and China itself have taken in the last 30 years, to show that we are willing to work with the regime under the right circumstances. Only if a sincere effort at engagement fails will China and South Korea consider the sorts of economic coercion needed to make Kim Jong Il and his cronies in Pyongyang feel real pain from their actions.
And on the subject of preemption, while the missile launch does not itself constitute a sufficient threat to warrant preemption, other dangers lurk that could do so. Specifically, North Korea may complete two large nuclear reactors that were put in mothballs as part of the 1994 Agreed Framework that is no longer operative between Washington and Pyongyang. Those reactors could produce enough plutonium for several dozen nuclear warheads a year. They must not be allowed to operate. Preemption would make good sense against them. But despite the seriousness of that threat, gaining international support to carry out an attack against those reactors would require laying the groundwork of serious negotiation first. If we are to have that option against North Korea someday, we need our friends and partners aboard in advance, so Pyongyang realizes we really would conduct such a strike — and thus hopefully be deterred from completing the reactors in the first place.
The missile test debate, despite its importance, does not really compare with the significance of what North Korea has done in the last three years in expanding its nuclear arsenal. Even more to the point, it is just a warm-up for the real problem we could be facing in a few short years if North Korea policy continues to fail. We should use this opportunity to refocus on what may be, despite all the attention placed on Iraq and Iran, the most significant nuclear crisis of our time.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Mike Mochizuki are authors of “Crisis on the Korean Peninsula: Dealing with a Nuclear North Korea.”