[Viewpoint] U.S. should let missile drama unfold
The U.S. decision not to take any pre-emptive action against a long-range missile to be launched by North Korea will ultimately put Pyongyang under stronger international pressure than intercepting it in midair would have.
There are people who express concern, saying that the sudden change in the U.S.-North Korea policy reflects the Obama administration’s lack of will to punish North Korea even if it violates the UN resolution. There are also people who suspect that the U.S. military capability to intercept a missile in midair is not yet reliable.
It sounds paradoxical, but we should not overlook that North Korea could be looking forward to U.S. military action to shoot down its rocket.
Since North Korea tested a nuclear bomb in 2006, its foremost strategic goal has been getting international recognition that it also has the capability to deliver a nuclear bomb to a target. I do not mean to say that I believe in North Korean propaganda or doubt that the missile launching is for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. However, I think the North, from the beginning, did not intend to fire a warhead with dubious capacity into the sea near Alaska or Hawaii. That is not their strategic goal at this stage.
The press as well as the governments of the United States and Japan have been, in the meantime, engaged in a discussion about whether the U.S. and Japanese missile defense systems can successfully intercept the North Korean missile in midair. Some media outlets have been quite optimistic about that. On the contrary, some others have expressed worries over the possibility that the North’s nuclear threat would become a reality. By both overestimating the U.S. missile defense system, which is not yet complete, and amplifying the North’s nuclear grandstanding, aren’t we giving the North exactly what it has been aiming at?
From the beginning, what has mattered is not whether the United States or Japan can shoot down the North Korean missile. It is a question of whether the North will succeed in launching an intercontinental missile in the first place.
If the North succeeds, its ability to deliver a nuclear bomb to a strategic target will be recognized. For this, it is enough to test-fire “a space-launch vehicle.” There is no need for Pyongyang to recklessly discharge a warhead of dubious capacity into the sea near Alaska. Although North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and his followers are military adventurists, they are not quite that foolhardy.
In a way, North Korea has already attained its strategic goal - and then some. As soon as the North started to prepare for the launching in early February, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave North Korea a strong warning not to proceed.
In the 50 days since then, the whole process of preparing, including the transportation of the launching vehicle from storage to the launch site, the opening of facilities at the launching pad, the fueling of the rocket and the installation of a missile head, have been reported to the whole world by the international press as if relaying a sports game. In terms of publicity, North Korea has achieved a big success.
Nowhere else in the world would an old-fashioned liquid-fuel missile ever attract this much international attention. This is perhaps North Korean-style diplomacy - North Korea’s way of taming its powerful neighbors.
Now the remaining chapter of the missile drama is the climax - the launch itself and the sending of a satellite into orbit. The missile drama must be the work of Kim Jong-il. He is known to be a movie maniac and has experience directing and producing many films. It is said that even his late father, Kim Il Sung, praised his talent as a movie director. He must have written the script, and he must be the one directing the whole drama from behind the scenes.
The North Korean missile drama unfolds in front of the watchful eyes of the whole world. The whole world is waiting to see in what dramatic way Kim Jong-il will present the climax.
Now that the United States and Japan have decided not to intercept the missile, Kim Jong-il knows he must launch “a space-launch vehicle” successfully, at whatever cost. If the North fails, its brinkmanship tactics will no longer work and it will ultimately have to abandon its nuclear strategy.
The U.S. decision not to take any military action ahead of the North Korean missile launch lets North Korea prove its missile technology on its own. It will not be too late to take punitive action against the North, including due punishment for its violation of the UN resolution, after the credits roll.
The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.
by Park Sung-soo