Commentary

A Nuisance, Not a Threat

Regardless of how many times North Korea tests its missiles, it does not constitute an existential threat to the United States or its allies.

In fact, some of the suggestions for a response to the missile tests that have significantly increased international tensions are more dangerous than the specter of a North Korean missile capability itself.

The missile tests compound North Korea’s continual effort to process plutonium for nuclear weapons, and the prospect of Pyongyang having not only nuclear weapons but also the means to deliver them at considerable distances has generated alarm in the United States and East Asia.

Hawks in the United States occasionally have advocated pre-emptive airstrikes to take out Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Shortly before the seven missile tests Tuesday, former Clinton administration Defense Secretary William J. Perry and Assistant Secretary Ashton B. Carter suggested a strike to destroy the Taepodong-2 missile while it was still on the launch pad. It was the only one of the seven that had the potential to reach U.S. territory.

Prudent Americans should reject schemes for pre-emptive military action. Such a strategy has a high probability of triggering a general war on the Korean peninsula. The last Korean War killed millions of Koreans and more than 50,000 American troops. Today, North Korea is capable of firing about 300,000 artillery shells an hour into South Korea’s capital city, Seoul, where nearly half the nation’s population resides.

Proponents of pre-emptive strikes would risk the lives of millions of South Koreans as well as the lives of the U.S. troops stationed in South Korea on, at best, a long-shot gamble that Pyongyang would not respond militarily to an attack on its territory, however much it humiliated the regime. Responsible superpowers do not gamble so recklessly.

Proposals for comprehensive economic sanctions, for which Japan is pushing hard, are only a little less unrealistic and dangerous. To date, China and Russia have strongly opposed sanctions against North Korea, and unless they change their policies, the U.N. Security Council is unlikely to adopt sanctions that would have any significant impact.

That is probably just as well. Sanctions have a dismal historical record of getting regimes to abandon high-priority policies, and North Korea clearly regards its nuclear and missile programs as high-priority, high-prestige objectives. Pyongyang also has warned that it would regard the imposition of international sanctions as an act of war. Perhaps that is mere bluster, but it would be risky to find out.

Even if North Korea conducts additional tests of the Taepodong-2 and other missiles, it is a manageable problem, not a mortal threat to U.S. or regional security.

Granted, no sensible person wants the weird hermit kingdom to have nuclear weapons or missile systems. But 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 Tse-tung. Both countries had far more nuclear weapons and missiles than North Korea ever can hope to build.

We should be able to deter the likes of Kim Jong Il. The North Korean regime, while bizarre and brutally repressive, has never shown signs of suicidal behavior. And attacking the United States would definitely be suicidal. Even attacking a U.S. treaty ally, such as Japan or South Korea, would be extraordinarily risky.

Instead of supporting coercive measures, Washington should seek to defuse tensions by proposing bilateral negotiations with North Korea on a wide range of issues. Although the six-party talks on Pyongyang’s nuclear program have made slight progress over the past three years, there is little evidence that the security situation in Northeast Asia will improve substantially until there is a meaningful dialogue between North Korea and the United States.

It would have been better if Washington had pursued such an initiative before the missile tests because to do so now would seem to be rewarding bad behavior on North Korea’s part. Nevertheless, it is the best option available.

Launching pre-emptive airstrikes or even imposing economic sanctions would be far more provocative and dangerous than relying on deterrence and trying to engage Pyongyang in productive diplomacy. We need cool heads to prevail in Washington and the various East Asian capitals. North Korea is an annoying problem, but it is not an overwhelming threat.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.