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San Francisco Chronicle June 25, 2006

Idea of strike on North Korea missile assailed as overkill

Clinton-era officials' suggestion 'pours gasoline on the fire'

By Matthew B. Stannard

A proposal calling on the United States to consider a military assault on North Korea if it refuses to mothball a new long-range ballistic missile has roiled the debate over how best to confront the dangers associated with the North's nuclear arsenal.

The idea comes from two experts in defense policy: William Perry, secretary of defense in the Clinton administration and now a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and his former assistant secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, now at Harvard University. Writing in Thursday's Washington Post, the two argue that while the doctrine of pre-emption has been unwisely ballyhooed by the Bush administration, the White House should still consider a military intervention against North Korea before it can develop into a mortal threat.

"I have a lot of respect for both of those guys, and I was really surprised" by the essay, said Daniel A. Pinkston, a Korea specialist at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey. "My jaw practically hit the floor."

The threat could develop, Perry and Carter warned, if North Korea -- which says it has developed nuclear weapons -- is permitted to perfect its Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, which could have enough range to reach U.S. soil.

There is some skepticism about North Korea having nuclear weapons, and the missile's effective range is debated, too, but the White House considers the threat real enough because it reportedly moved some of the nation's largely unproven missile interception system to operational footing.

"Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil? We believe not," Perry and Carter wrote. "We should not conceal our determination to strike the Taepodong if North Korea refuses to drain the fuel out and take it back to the warehouse."

Such a strike could be accomplished with a conventional submarine-launched cruise missile, the two wrote, which would destroy the rocket -- probably igniting the rocket fuel as well -- and the test area.

"This is a hard measure for President Bush to take. It undoubtedly carries risk," they concluded. "But the risk of continuing inaction in the face of North Korea's race to threaten this country would be greater."

Perry and Carter have their supporters, most notably former Vice President Walter Mondale, who said Friday he supports a pre-emptive U.S. strike against a North Korean missile. He said the Bush administration should tell North Korea to dismantle the missile or "we are going to take it out."

But Vice President Dick Cheney and national security adviser Stephen Hadley have both rejected that approach, and a number of analysts, in print and in interviews, chastised Perry and Carter for minimizing the risk of even suggesting such a tactic.

"They have poured gasoline on the fire, because they have put use of force on the table when a week ago it was unthinkable," said John Pike, founder of the private think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

"Under the Perry plan of prior notification, you can imagine that rather than evacuating its engineers from the missile test site, Pyongyang might instead erect bleachers and bring in schoolchildren to watch the launch," wrote Charles "Jack" Pritchard, who resigned in August 2003 as special U.S. envoy for negotiations with North Korea. Pritchard's warning in response was published in the Washington Post on Friday.

Former U.N. chief weapons inspector David Kay, now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, called Perry's proposal bizarre.

"If I did not know Bill Perry, I would say that here go the Democrats posturing on a national security issue ... advocating an imaginary, strong action that they know is impossible for the administration to take," Kay said. "Maybe it's just seller's remorse at not taking on the North when they had a chance (during the Clinton years). Whatever the reason, it's the wrong policy."

Kay argued that real stability on the Korean peninsula requires fundamental change in the North -- wrought not through the stick of military action, but through the carrot of diplomacy, even if that requires some pretty big carrots.

"It scarcely matters that North Korea might have a long-range missile. Missiles all come with 'return addresses' ... and so if North Korea ever attacked using one, retaliation would be swift, sure and overwhelming," noted John Arquilla, professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. "The best way ahead on the Korean peninsula would be for us to work out a simple deal: The North Koreans end their nuclear weapons program in return for a 'no invasion' pledge from us, perhaps along with some kind of economic sweetener," he said.

That formula, he noted, "could work with Iran, too."

"Given vastly superior U.S. conventional and nuclear forces, deterrence should dissuade North Korea from ever using such missiles, except for saber rattling -- or worse, selling nuclear weapons or nuclear material abroad," said Dean Wilkening of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford. "Kim Jong Il may be a ruthless totalitarian leader, with little regard for the welfare of his people, but he is not suicidal."

That doesn't mean the North Korean leader won't continue his testing despite U.S. saber rattling, said Pinkston. The missile program attracts international condemnation, he said, but it wins Kim points domestically, by placating hawks within the bloated North Korean military and showing the general public some concrete rewards for the huge political and economic investment his government has made in science and technology.

"Internationally, there are certain costs. But domestically, there are certain benefits," he said. "If you look at it just domestically, it makes complete sense (for Kim) to launch."

On the other hand, overly harsh U.S. sanctions or military strikes against North Korea could affect relations with other nations of far greater strategic, economic and political significance to the United States.

"If you did this, the Chinese would flip out," Pinkston said. "And I would bet you'd probably end the U.S.-South Korea alliance. For what?"

Sheila Smith, a regional relations specialist at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said the fallout could spread throughout the region, despite the assertion by Perry and Carter that the conflict would remain confined to just the United States and North Korea.

"Other governments in the region, most notably South Korea but also Japan, would probably not endorse a U.S. strike," she said. "Given the proximity of South Koreans and Japanese to North Korea, any retaliation for the U.S. strike would most likely be aimed at these two U.S. allies. In effect, it could put in motion a series of events that would lead to undermining U.S. alliances, rather than strengthening them."

Stanford's Wilkening said a North Korean missile launch could plug some holes in what is known about North Korea's technology and isolate the regime still further.

"So, what should the United States do on the eve of this flight test? Nothing beyond expressing its dismay that North Korea appears to favor conflict over cooperation," Wilkening said.

In the long run, a long-range missile combined with its nuclear arsenal in the hands of North Korea's unpredictable leader could have negative consequences, threatening U.S. interests, starting a new arms race with Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and rattling nerves from Asia to Africa, said Young Whan Kihl. He is a professor of political science at Iowa State University and a visiting fellow at the East-West Center.

But in the short run, Kihl said, the launching of a Taepodong-2 might have a booster shot effect on the stalemated six-party nuclear talks. And that, he argued, may be just what North Korea has in mind.

"Kim Jong Il seems to play a crying-baby role, to get attention from George W. Bush," he said.

Copyright 2006, San Francisco Chronicle