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Looking Forward Korea

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on March 10th, 2009

North Korea has said that she will test fire a new long range missile sometime very soon. Here are four questions we should be considering:

Will the United States attempt to intercept the missile? 

The United States has eighteen Aegis-radar equipped ships configured for ballistic missile defense. Were some of these deployed as a screen, downrange from North Korea, chances are at least even that the missile could be stopped.

Were that to happen, the missile defense program, about which the US president has expressed strongly negative views, would gain credibility. North Korea and China, however, would be humiliated, however, with the likely reaction being a suspension of the six power talks. These, which aim to persuade North Korea to abandon her nuclear program are of course pointless, as North Korea will never do that, but they are an important component of Washington’s ostensible policy nevertheless.

Note too that South Korea is building Aegis vessels.

Most importantly, any attempt by the U.S. to intercept the missile must be ordered by the American president. Whether to make the attempt is a difficult decision for him, because success would undermine both his opposition to missile defense and the peaceful denuclearization approach to North Korea that is now being applied to Iran as well.

The attempt would greatly strengthen his national security credentials, though.

Success would also undermine the mooted effort to trade anti-missile radars in Europe for better relations with Russia. Having seen success, the Europeans would insist that we protect them, too.

U.S. failure to intercept successfully would undermine both missile defense and the six power talks, as it would show us as not yet fully capable, if not weak. However, my own view is that even the attempt would be a shot across the bow, which, by definition misses the target while sending a message.

Will Japan intercept the missile?

This is the most interesting possibility. Japan, the invisible power in Northeast Asia, has two Aegis ships configured for ballistic missile defense. Prime Minister Aso has stated that the Self Defense Forces will stop any sort of object fired in their direction. So a Japanese attempt to intercept the missile is a near certainty.

Should Japan succeed, Asian security calculations will be turned on their heads. Japanese public opinion will be ecstatic. North Korea and China will be humiliated. South Korea and Taiwan will be heartened, as will be the United States. Japan will be able to “walk tall” internationally in a way not seen since her defeat in World War II.

North Korea may well respond by an attempt to co-opt Japan, perhaps by offering information on the Japanese citizens abducted or other such gestures, in an effort to divide the emerging constellation of anti-missile capable powers.

China, whose policies rest to a large extent on perceived awesomeness or wei rather than proven capabilities, would be in a difficult position. Her threats to use salvoes of missiles against Taiwan, or perhaps Japan in the Senkakus, would lose some of their intimidating power. The thousand plus missiles deployed against Taiwan would be devalued somewhat. Asian countries would begin to look at Japan as a power once again.

Most importantly, transparency about Japan’s formidable military power would result from a successful interception. At present constant discussion of the Japanese constitution, rules of engagement, whether Japan can legally have a military and fight, the nuclear allergy, etc. obscure the reality which is that Japan remains the super power of Asia.

Tokyo is deeply complicit in keeping this fact hidden, for she advances her military program by changing constitutional interpretations rather than changing the constitution. This makes sense given domestic politics and alleged regional sensitivities. But it cloaks from view realities that should be factored into any assessment.

Greater clarity about Japan’s real military capabilities should be substituted for the academic discussions of constitutional law and such that currently dominate. This is important not least because deterrence is created by known, not by hidden, capabilities.

Will Japan and the U.S. cooperate in an interception?

This would be the best scenario, as it would put new life into the key Tokyo-Washington. But we cannot rule out a situation in which Washington decides not to intercept and Tokyo goes ahead.

One wonders what the Chinese are telling the United States: my hunch is, “don’t get involved in this and for God’s sake don’t attempt an interception. We want to reduce tensions. An interception would raise these. We will take care of North Korea for you. Just give us the room to maneuver.”

U.S. failure to cooperate with Japan would nudge Japan further towards where she should be: militarily an independent and fully capable military state, comparable to Britain or France, and closely allied with Washington.

U.S. failure to cooperate would, however, undermine that alliance while demonstrating to the Japanese that China is now really the power that Washington seeks to please.

Will North Korea succeed anyway?

Ballistic missile defense is still a toddler and may well fall on its face this time. It is a healthy toddler, however, that when mature will greatly reduce the danger of war as the result of attempted lightning missile strikes. Of course missile defense can always be saturated by firing more missiles than there are interceptors, but that number will be so large as to amount to a declaration of world war.

North Korea may well fire a series of missiles, some decoys, some the one they are testing, in order to confuse the defenders. This, however, will only underline the importance of developing the capability by demonstrating the reality of the risk.

If the North Koreans manage to loft a satellite or plunge a nose cone into waters off the Pacific coast of the USA, that will be alarming indeed.

If the US has done nothing even to try to stop that, Washington’s security and military stock will be marked down.

But if the Japanese attempt to stop the missile, whether they succeed or not, the attempt will change fundamentally a whole host of perceptions, about Japan, her military power, and her importance to the free world.

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