Be ready to strike and destroy North Korea’s missile test

Be ready to strike and destroy North Korea’s missile test

By Philip Zelikow

In today’s Washington Post, Selig Harrison writes that, according to his named high-ranking North Korean contacts, North Korea’s plutonium has now all been weaponized. For what kind of weapons, you may wonder? There are only two viable weapons options for North Korea: missiles or devices for unconventional delivery (covert terror weapons). It is also worth keeping in mind that North Korea was deeply involved in the nuclear reactor being covertly constructed in Syria, which Israel destroyed militarily.

Harrison argues that the world should accept the existence of North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile as a fait accompli and develop a strategy of deterrence. But whatever the merits of Harrison’s suggestion when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the United States should not accept Pyongyang’s development of long-range missile systems, which can be paired with an admitted nuclear weapons arsenal, as still another fait accompli. To accept the combination of nuclear weapons and IRBMs or ICBMs in the hands of North Korea is a gamble, betting on deterrence of one of the least well understood governments on earth, in a country now undergoing high levels of internal stress. 

Secretary Clinton has described apparent North Korean plans to test a long-range ballistic missile as "unhelpful." Well … what do we do about it?

Rewind back two and a half years ago, to June 2006, when North Korea was preparing an earlier series of missile tests. Two of President Clinton’s top defense officials, Ash Carter and Bill Perry, published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, entitled: "If Necessary, Strike and Destroy: North Korea Cannot Be Allowed to Test this Missile." Carter and Perry analyzed that, if hit with a conventional weapon,

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.

At the time this essay was published, I was serving in the State Department. Secretary Rice had asked me to help advise on North Korea policy. My view in June 2006 was that this analysis was basically right but that their recommendation of military action was premature, for two reasons: (1) attainment of a long-range or intercontinental missile capability would require more tests, so this one did not place North Korea at the threshold of an operational capability; and (2) given point #1, it was better to use the test to draw a "red line" with support from the international community. Thus, the next time, the United States would be in a much stronger position to act with international support. 

And indeed, North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests in 2006 produced just such an international foundation for further action. First came UN Security Council Resolution 1695, adopted in July 2006. There, the Council stated, it "demands that the DPRK suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme." Then came UN Security Council Resolution 1718, adopted in October 2006. That resolution was more ominous. The Council now said it was acting under the UN Charter’s Chapter VII, its provisions for dealing with threats to international peace and security. These can include collective military action and self-defense. Resolution 1718 limited itself to non-military measures, but in it, the Council said it "decides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching." This was imperative language, the strongest international action against North Korea since the 1953 Korean War armistice.

In 2006, the United Nations drew a clear line, acting under Chapter VII of its Charter. Today, in 2009, the United States need not stand by and watch North Korea cross that line. Non-military measures were given a fair try. Now the political predicate for the Carter-Perry recommendations has been well laid.

The logical next step, after high-level discussions in the U.S. government and consultation with our allies, is to issue North Korea a warning to stand down (conveyed either directly, indirectly, or through a leak of planning to strike and destroy the missile). Pyongyang would either then stand down silently or they would not. We lose little from the warning if I’m right in estimating that the North Koreans cannot protect the test missile from a U.S. strike once they stand it up on the gantry. Our warning would be that, if you stand up the missile (itself a plain violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1718), the United States will take it down. The North Korean perfection of a long-range nuclear missile capability against the United States, Japan, or the Republic of Korea would pose an imminent threat to the vital interests of our country.

If the United States strikes North Korea’s missiles on their launch site, other would-be proliferators will take notice — thus lending much greater weight to the fresh diplomatic initiatives the Obama administration has in mind. The downside, as in 2006, is the possibility of North Korean escalation against South Korea. The United States must consider its own security, the security of its Japanese ally, and the security of its South Korean ally. Ideally, all should arrive at a common understanding of what must be done to protect their long-term security.

Secretary Clinton has said a North Korean missile test would be "unhelpful." I hope her deliberate reticence masks preparations for concerted action.