This weekend, North Korea followed through on its threat and tested a nuclear weapon - one far more powerful than the weapon it tested in 2006. In recent weeks, the regime has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile, expelled international monitors, declared that it will withdraw from international six-party talks, and threatened to restart the nuclear facilities that provided the atomic fuel for its weapons.
These actions make clear that the tepid international response to North Korea’s missile tests in April has emboldened Pyongyang to think it can once again intimidate the world with its misbehavior. We must not make the same mistake in response to this new provocation.
When North Korea tested a ballistic missile last month, most of the world wanted to sweep the event under the table. The launch was widely dismissed as a failure because the regime did not achieve its stated goal of putting a satellite into orbit. Press reports mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s claims that the satellite is now circling the earth, and his statements expressing “great satisfaction” with the results.
If we assume, however, that the objective was not to bring satellite radio to every impoverished household in North Korea, but to extend the range of the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, then North Korea’s leader had reason to be satisfied.
In 1998, North Korea tested a ballistic missile that traveled slightly more than 1,000 miles. With this most recent test, Pyongyang succeeded in launching a missile that traveled nearly 2,000 miles. One day, it might be possible for North Korea to place parts of the U.S. within range of its missiles. It would, of course, be folly for North Korea to consider doing so, but its mere possession of such capability would reduce the scope of U.S. foreign-policy options in dealing with the regime.
Even if one doubts the muscularity of North Korea’s missile capability, Kim Jong-il can take comfort that he’s in the company of the U.N. Security Council when it comes to a lack of credibility.
President Obama stood firm in his position that the North Korean launch was a violation of Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1695. Together with Japan and South Korea, his administration has pressed hard for a Security Council resolution imposing new sanctions on North Korea for its missile launch. Speaking in Prague after the North Korean launch, President Obama declared: “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.” The president is right, of course, but unfortunately, China and Russia would agree only to a nonbinding “presidential statement.”
Tough words, without tough action, means that Kim Jong-il can tell the world “tough luck” - which is precisely what he has done in recent weeks.
Since words have no impact upon North Korea’s stratagems and actions, the U.S. should say little in response and give that country even less when it comes to economic assistance. Kim Jong-il has built a throne of swords; he should be made to sit on it.
It should be noted that the rationale for constructing a missile-defense system was not only to defend our homeland against the mad or messianic of limited means, but also to serve as a last resort against an accidental launch of an ICBM by a major power.
Reducing the funding commitment to our missile-defense system by $1.4 billion, as the Obama administration has done, sends the signal that we do not take the threats of rogue regimes seriously, and are willing to take the risk that current technologies are sufficient to prevent devastating accidents or miscalculations.
Given the disturbing geopolitical events that are now unfolding, it is imperative that we err on the side of safety. The consequences are too grave to allow our leadership to claim at some future time that they were taken by surprise.
Cutting missile-defense funding at this critical juncture sends the wrong signal to both our adversaries and our allies. It would embolden North Korea, Iran and other rogue states to pursue missiles of increasing range. It would also confuse our allies and undermine their trust in America’s security guarantees. If the United States is vulnerable to the threat of a missile attack by a rogue state, allies could lose confidence in America’s nuclear deterrent - which could lead nations such as Japan to pursue a nuclear deterrent of their own.
Sending a clear message that America is committed to ballistic-missile defense would advance our nonproliferation goals. It would strengthen the hand of our diplomats as they seek to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula and help persuade Iran to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons. It would dissuade rogue regimes from investing in ballistic missiles in the first place - because they know that America and our allies are building and deploying the means to neutralize this threat. And it would strengthen our alliances - by increasing confidence in America’s deterrent and allowing us to continue collaboration on defensive measures, instead of encouraging allies to build offensive capabilities.
William S. Cohen, chairman of the Cohen Group, served as secretary of defense from 1997 to 2001 and is a former Republican senator from Maine.