How Do You Solve a Problem Like…Korea?

The really big story today continues to be the tense situation surrounding North Korea’s presumed impending test launch of an ICBM which may have a range of 9,300 miles—enough to strike the west coast of the United States:

WASHINGTON – All eyes — and ears — are on North Korea. Military and intelligence agencies of the United States and its allies are spying from land, air, sea and space to learn whether the communist nation is preparing to test fire a long-range missile that may be capable of reaching the western U.S.

The allies are depending on a wide array of sophisticated surveillance technology to take photographs, listen to phone and radio transmissions and even make video recordings of developments on the ground in North Korea.

“It’s like watching reality TV,” said military analyst Dan Goure of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.

The intelligence is being collected from satellites, spy planes, radar on ships and land-based listening posts.

The U.S. Navy’s guided-missile destroyers USS Fitzgerald and USS Curtis Wilbur are off the Korean coast and would be capable of detecting and tracking a missile should one be launched, a Pentagon official said Wednesday.

In this morning’s Washington Post, Ashton B. Carter, assistant secretary of defense, and William J. Perry, secretary of defense (both under President Clinton), urge that North Korea or, at least, this test launch be voted off the island:

Therefore, if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched. This could be accomplished, for example, by a cruise missile launched from a submarine carrying a high-explosive warhead. The blast would be similar to the one that killed terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq. But the effect on the Taepodong would be devastating. The multi-story, thin-skinned missile filled with high-energy fuel is itself explosive — the U.S. airstrike would puncture the missile and probably cause it to explode. The carefully engineered test bed for North Korea’s nascent nuclear missile force would be destroyed, and its attempt to retrogress to Cold War threats thwarted. There would be no damage to North Korea outside the immediate vicinity of the missile gantry.

I respectfully disagree with Mssrs. Carter and Perry.

First, the morality of such an act would be doubtful. I don’t want to go into the details of Just War Theory here and now but the rule of thumb is that preemptive war may be moral; preventive war is unlikely to be moral. Unless Carter and Perry have evidence in their possession that this is no test but, in fact, an attack, destroying the missile would clearly fall into the category of a preventive strike rather than a preemptive one.

Second, the reputation of the United States is at a low ebb right now for reasons that are also beyond the scope of this post. A missile strike against a country that’s as feeble as North Korea will do little to improve that.

Third, no one doubts that the United States has the ability to obliterate North Korea let alone a North Korean missile silo. There’s llittle to gain for the United States there, either.

Fourth, while the North Korean regime is canny I’m not convinced that’s it’s fully hinged. I don’t find Mssrs. Carter and Perry’s conviction that the regime will respond maturely and rationally comforting.

What do I think should be done? Contrary to what may seem apparent from my many posts urging avoidance of the use of force I am not a dove. If a North Korean missile were to strike U. S. territory, it would be an act of war and should be treated as such. President Bush should immediately put the North Koreans on notice to this effect.

Most importantly, we need to engage the Chinese immediately on this issue. North Korea owes its creation and its continued existence to China. Without Chinese support Kim Jong-Il’s regime would surely fail. China must recognize that the United States will not be bullied, particularly by nonentities like North Korea whether it’s a Chinese client state or no. And we must be willing to sacrifice to back that up.

UPDATE: James Joyner says that my post is self-refuting.

Dave Shuler argues that such a strike would be a violation of Just War Theory, constituting an unprovoked war of aggression. He may be right, certainly under the spirit of the UN Charter. Unfortunately, his own argument contains its rebuttal: “If a North Korean missile were to strike U. S. territory, it would be an act of war and should be treated as such. President Bush should immediately put the North Koreans on notice to this effect.” Yet, surely, waiting for a DPRK nuclear missile strike is a bit late for action. And, while that possibility may be rather remote, the cloak of nuclear blackmail would hover over our relations with the Koreas and the region generally.

I don’t think so.  I think I’m trying to tread a fine line. Responding to an attack is justified; a spoiling attack i.e. preempting an imminent attack is justified; attacking someone who might attack you at some point in the future is probably not justified.

Let’s not gloss over the distinction between preemption (which is justified) and prevention (which probably isn’t). The difference is knowledge: you need to know the attack is in the offing.

I am emphatically not saying that we need to absorb a nuclear attack in order to be justified. I am saying that the threshold for such a response is higher than Carter and Perry are making it.

17 comments… add one
  • I thought I read this morning that China threatened to cut off food and fuel deliveries of NoKo went ahead with the test.

    Can’t find the link at present but I’m sure I read it. And since they depend for existence on those deliveries, it could be that this crisis has already passed.

  • All I’d read this morning about the Chinese reaction to the prospective test was that they weren’t happy. This would be good news. That’s exactly the kind of tangible response that’s necessary.

  • Barnabus Link

    I wish people would stop saying we should “engage with China.” We already have and it has gotten us nothing. Has anyone stopped to think that China does not have the same strategic interests as the U.S.? Perhaps it is part of China’s strategic plan to create a number of nuclear states, all aligned not so much with China but against U.S. foreign policy.

  • I disagree, Barnabus. I don’t think we’ve done much negotiating with China at all. Rather we’ve rolled over and given them what they want in a mad grab for a dollar bill.

    That’s what I meant when I said we should be prepared to make sacrifices. China needs U. S. trade and we’re becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese banks buying our bonds. We’ve got to be willing to withhold the former and curtail the latter

  • oh my heavens…”my mind is going, dave, I can feel it…”

    IOW, be darned if I don’t agree with you and be double darned if you didn’t jell my thinking for me. I been wafflin’ big time.

    There must be some quote in the Tao that agrees with your thinking, too, but I have too many darned posts to get thru to look it up.

    Fine, reasoned post, Sir.

  • Louis Spielman Link

    What we need to do is to hold up to China the vision of a nuclear-armed Japan with a carrier fleet. That is the Chinese nightmare that North Korea will create if it continues in its present path.

  • That’s certainly one of the keys, Louis. And a country with the wealth, education, and capabilities of Japan could assemble a nuclear arsenal and a fleet in a remarkably small amount of time. Note that Japan also has one of the world’s largest inventories of plutonium.

  • comrad anomis Link

    i still wonder,after all they do have a humanitarian crisis with the consantration camps ,the 1979 kiddnappinings of jap citizins,starvin g children and people.technacly due t othe sactions by the us they call the us there worst enemy,which is rediculas,so there gov might be ruun by 6 year olds.who knows they might of made there own verson of teh wizard of oz which can be easly turned into propoganda with bush as the www[not that i think of him as that]dorothya pyongyang schoolgirl and the not so dear leader as the wizard.and the ruby sliiipers as the slippers of juche.KIM JONG IL IS A OPOSOL OF THE DEVIL.AND THEY AXIS OF EVIL TO.

  • comrad anomis Link


  • comrad anomis Link

    ok the part abotu teh slippers of juche didnt make any sence,what i ment to say was the slipppers that teh mother if teh regime’s slippers.

  • comrad anomis Link

    oh yeah if u hate n korea and songunhblog , he now resides in south london

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