Rumors abound that North Korea will soon test-fire its Taepodong 2 missile, which would be capable of reaching targets in the United States.
The prospect of Pyongyang having not only nuclear weapons but the means to deliver them at considerable distances has produced agitated commentary in the United States and East Asia.
Unfortunately, the two leading suggestions for a U.S. response are more dangerous than the specter of a missile test itself. Former Clinton administration Defense Department officials Ashton Carter and William Perry make the most radical proposal. They suggest that if the North Korean government does not heed Washington’s warnings to refrain from testing the missile, the Bush administration should launch a preemptive air strike to take out the missile while it is still on the launch pad.
Other experts recommend that the U.S. use its embryonic ballistic missile defense system to shoot down the Taepodong if it is launched.
The North Koreans will allege - as they did in 1998, the last time they tested a missile - that what they plan is a satellite launch, permissible under international law. They might be lying, but a launch would not necessarily be a hostile act, whereas shooting anything a country sent up out of the sky would be.
Prudent Americans must reject both schemes. The strategy suggested by Carter and Perry has a high probability of triggering a general war on the Korean Peninsula. The option to shoot down the missile is only marginally better. Given the ratio of failures to successes in tests of ballistic missile defense systems, it is quite likely that an effort to intercept the Taepodong would fail. That would be acutely embarrassing to the United States. If the effort succeeded, North Korea might consider it an act of war.
Those who suggest taking out the missile need to take a deep breath. First of all, the stories of an impending missile test may or may not be true. On at least two occasions since Pyongyang announced a moratorium on testing in 1999, there have been reports that the test of a long-range missile was imminent. Those reports were unfounded, and this one may prove groundless as well.
Even if North Korea tests the Taepodong 2, it is not the end of the world. The United States has thousands of nuclear warheads and the means to deliver them with pinpoint accuracy. We have deterred other strange and ruthless regimes in the past, most notably the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin and China under Mao Zedong.
Both of those countries had far more nuclear weapons and missiles than North Korea can ever hope to build.
The North Korean regime, while bizarre and brutally repressive, has never shown signs of suicidal behavior. And attacking the United States, which possesses thousands of nukes, would definitely be suicidal.
Launching preemptive air strikes or even using the missile defense system to try to intercept a missile would be far more dangerous than relying on deterrence. Let us hope that the cool heads prevail.