Thursday, June 22, 2006

Please Don't Shoot, Kim

The entire East Asian region, along with the United States, is holding its breath as the incertitude over North Korea's possible long-range missile test launch continues. Defense scientists in South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. can't agree on how to interpret the imagery intelligence, or IMINT, on the launch site. Given the hermetic nature of a closed state like North Korea, human intelligence, or HUMINT, on the preparations for (and the goal of) the possible launch is sparse.

In the past few days, the Pentagon has hinted that should North Korea go ahead with its test, the U.S. might consider the option of intercepting or shooting it down with its anti-missile defense system.

But the likelihood that the U.S. would resort to this option is very low. There are three main reasons why this is so, which I list here in ascending order of importance.

First, as some commentators have pointed out, intercepting a North Korean missile would engender a strong reaction from the international community. Though very few people care for the regime in Pyongyang and would rather that it refrained from firing missiles left and right, the U.S. ballistic missile defense system also happens to be very contentious. It would seem that in certain countries, such global capabilities leave an unpalatable aftertaste of military imperialism. International opposition to this system notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Washington would allow itself be deterred (remember Iraq, anyone?).

The second, more serious possibility is that an interception would lead to an escalation of the conflict between North Korea and the U.S., as both sides (including regional allies) could interpret these actions as acts of war. We should always remember that once people leave the diplomatic table and start launching missiles and interceptors (tests or otherwise), we are one step closer to armed conflict. These are no accusations thrown across the negotiating room or documents tabled at the United Nations Security Council; missiles and interceptors are fast, hard, and laden with dangers. As Washington is already embroiled in Iraq and sees the Iranian threat looming dangerously close, it would be surprising if it chose to act in such a way as would increase tensions in the Korean Peninsula.

The third and likeliest reason why Washington will refrain from choosing the intercept option is more technical and lies in the fact that the anti-missile system is unproven. So far, despite billions of dollars in investment, the track record in intercepting missiles in flight, from the Patriot battery system deployed in Saudi Arabia and Israel during the Second Persian Gulf War of 1991 to test firings in recent years, has been an unexciting one. Technical challenges aside, numerous difficult-to-know variables such as decoys, multiple heads, or simply random inaccuracy resulting from poor missile design (in the one that needs to be intercepted, that is) make it so much harder to hit the bullet on the nose as it blazes through the sky.

But I digress. The heart of the matter is that nothing would hurt Washington more than to fire an interceptor at the North Korean missile, and to miss. In such a scenario, not only would Pyongyang successfully test-fire its missile, but more importantly Washington would lose face, thus sending a message of weakness around the world. The consequences for the regional powers' faith in U.S. military protection, from Japan to South Korea to Taiwan, would be immense. (I can already see Kim Jong-Il gloating, Chinese military officials toasting, and the higher-ups at the Pentagon scratching their heads.)

Given the unreliability of the interceptor system, I do not see the Pentagon making such a gamble—unless, that is, they see North Korea's launch not as a test but as a bona fide attack, which would lead us down an entirely different path.

For the time being, we can expect more diplomacy and pleas to Jong-Il. Please don't shoot, Kim.

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