[Overseas view] Dealing with impunity
The question now is how the United States and South Korea should respond. There are several options that could be considered.
The most severe response would be a pre-emptive strike. Three years ago former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter argued in the Washington Post that the U.S. should bomb the Taepodong?2 on its launch pad after it was revealed that Pyongyang was getting ready for a launch at that time.
The Bush administration never seriously considered that option, but there could be more international legal justification for a pre-emptive strike this time, since United Nations Security Council Resolution 1695 that was passed in July 2006 after the North’s last (unsuccessful) test condemned the North’s launches and requires member states to prevent the North from getting missile capabilities. Still, the Obama administration does not seem to be seriously considering that option, given the risk of broader conflict and criticism of the United States.
Another possible response was proposed by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who mused with reporters that the U.S. could consider shooting down the Taepodong?2 missile. While some skeptics argue it is too hard to hit a “bullet with a bullet,” the fact is that the SM?3 missiles on U.S. Aegis cruisers have regularly intercepted missiles in space going several times the speed of a bullet.
Nevertheless, I suspect the administration will not act on Gates’s suggestion, since a successful hit could make the North look like a victim and a miss would be embarrassing. An alternative would be for the U.S., Japanese and South Korean navies to track the missile launch and simulate an intercept to demonstrate that the capability does exist.
The most likely response will be to take the issue to the UN Security Council. All of the other members of the six-party talks have warned Pyongyang not to launch.
However, only the U.S., Japan and South Korea have been clear that a launch would violate Resolution 1695. China and Russia have been somewhat vague about that point, clinging to Pyongyang’s excuse that it will launch a “peaceful” satellite into orbit.
Any objective reading of 1695 would lead to the conclusion that even a so-called satellite launch would be a violation, but China is not eager for more tension on the Korean Peninsula at this point, given the economic crisis and Beijing’s nervousness about Tibet and other issues.
The Japanese and South Korean governments seem to expect action at the Security Council in the event of a launch, but the U.S. stance has not been so clear. The Obama administration may fear a split with the U.S., South Korea and Japan on one side and North Korea, China and Russia on the other. That is exactly what Pyongyang would like to see.
One way to avoid such a split would be to seek a statement condemning the launch from the president of the Security Council, but the president now is Libya - hardly a reliable partner for such an endeavor. The other alternative - avoiding the UNSC altogether - seems like a terrible surrender to Pyongyang’s provocative behavior.
In my view, it is imperative that North Korea pay a price for violating Resolution 1695. If the North launches, the U.S., South Korea and Japan should immediately announce a joint condemnation and urge the Security Council to impose sanctions consistent not only with 1695 but also Resolution 1718 that was passed after the North’s October 2006 nuclear test and which calls for the UNSC to “strengthen” sanctions if Pyongyang defies them (in fact, those sanctions were never even implemented). That resolute stance will make it more likely Beijing will also support some action in the Security Council. If not, the U.S., South Korea and Japan should impose their own trilateral sanctions.
Ultimately, if North Korea is able to conduct a Taepodong launch with impunity, our odds of progress in the six-party talks will markedly decline.
*The writer is senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
By Michael J. Green