DPRK Rocket Test Is A Wake-Up Call

13 Dec

South Koreans protest North Korea's rocket launchNorth Korea’s successful test launch of a three-stage rocket possibly allegedly carrying a 220-pound satellite, whose current orbital status no reputable source but North Korea has confirmed, is not a game-changer. A Harvard astronomer claims the satellite is “…orbiting a little higher than the International Space Station, reaching about 360 miles.” That achievement should be a catalyst for clearer thinking about American strategic priorities in East Asia. There’s little the international community can do to Pyongyang that hasn’t already tried.

This is a pretty blatant violation of a boat load of United Nations Resolutions, but it’s unclear what if anything the international community can do at this point. The U.S. and other nations already cut back on food aid to the nation when North Korea pursued it’s unsuccessful test launch back in April, and it’s unlikely that China would authorize any further sanctions out of the Security Council at this point. Instead, we’re likely to see a renewal of efforts by the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to beef up defense in the area.

As Marcus Noland argues (.mp3 files here and here), this rocket might be able to hit Guam and the Aleutians, but Pyongyang now still has very few rockets in its inventory which it cannot launch with any sort of tactical timeliness. And, whatever hardware was hefted, it’s ten times lighter and less sophisticated than a nuclear warhead. North Korea has years of practice before it is a real threat. And, that’s the good news, if regional players and the U.S. use this provocation wisely.

But, this is just batshit crazy thinking.

President Obama made a serious error when he failed to order that the rocket launched in April be shot down — if not destroyed on the launch pad, admittedly a highly provocative act. Had he done so, he would have deprived the North Koreans of the lessons it learned from that missile’s failure and we might not be where we are today. In fact, had the president established a new precedent — the United States simply does not allow North Korea to conduct unfettered missile tests — he might have quickly made such tests a thing of the past.

Yes, instead of strategic thinking and diplomacy, the default response is just blowing things up, imperiling Japan and South Korea, and extending already burdened American military forces. What partisan hackery!

In South Korea and Japan, the successful launch in the short term will most likely lead to the election of hawkish, conservative leadership. But over the longer term, both rivals will want to rely on their own defensive and intelligence-gathering resources, instead of cooperating with one another against a common threat. The most alarming result could be the proliferation of missile defense systems, like Israel’s Iron Dome (via Witness to Transformation).

The Ministry of Defense is in talks with South Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co. Ltd (KSX: 42669) to purchase four patrol boats for the Israel Navy to protect Israel’s exclusive economic zone. If the $400 million deal goes ahead, the ministry is expected to demand reciprocal procurements by Korea of the advanced missile interception system made by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.

Earlier this year, Korean Aerospace Industries Ltd. (KAI) lost the Ministry of Defense tender for the Air Force’s new jet trainer to Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi, to Korea’s bitter disappointment. Sources close to the issue believe that the new deal to buy Korean patrol boats could ease the disappointment in Seoul. In the bidding for the jet trainers, Korea offered reciprocal procurements centered on the Iron Dome missile interceptor. The offer is partly because of the threat to South Korea from North Korean missiles.

Japan and the United States are doggedly upgrading Tokyo’s Aegis missile defense system. (See also this WSJ report.) The U.S. Congress is certain to approve the measure in the wake of this launch.

Although successful, the bottom line cost to Pyongyang and average North Koreans is staggering.

South Korea’s government estimates that the two rocket launches — Wednesday’s and the failed one in April — added up to $600 million. Pyongyang spent an estimated $1.3 billion total on its rocket program this year, which the South Korean government says is enough to buy 4.6 million tons of corn. The government has also invested as much as $3.2 billion in nuclear weapons and missile development over the years, equivalent to three years’ supply of food for North Korea’s citizens, another South Korean official said.

Yet, no one believes “tougher” sanctions would deter future North Korean behavior, and this launch undermines the unrealistic notion, that Kim Jong-un is a reformer. It’s also in Beijing’s interest for North Korea to have this missile capability, because this will only allow both China and North Korea to extend a defensive perimeter guarded by naval and missile assets farther into the Pacific and South China Sea. With Seoul and Tokyo pursuing uncoordinated and possibly antagonistic missile defense programs that both could as likely deploy against one another as against Pyongyang, North Korea Korea is sowing dissension in the region, a fact which only helps China keep the United States on its heels.

The American response is a tired defense of international action and bilateral engagement. What Washington really needs to entertain is the fantasy, that it can both address its budget liabilities and implement a military strategy in the region that addresses the whole threat North Korea’s launch involves. China and North Korea threaten the entire pax americana, in the form of sea lanes and the reaches of the higher atmosphere, with a new regional order based on Beijing’s suzerainty. Washington can no longer conduct business as usual, a defense deal here, a bilateral or multilateral photo-op there, and massive defense spending everywhere.

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