Friday, May 01, 2009

More Thoughts around the Taepodong Launch (and a Notice)

”The last time North Korea tested such a missile, in 1998, it sent a shock wave around the world, but especially to the United States and Japan, both of which North Korea regards as archenemies. They recognized immediately that a missile of this type makes no sense as a weapon unless it is intended for delivery of a nuclear warhead.”
Ashton B. Carter and William J. Perry, “If Necessary, Strike and Destroy”, The Washington Post (22 June 2006)

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.
Philip Zelikow, “Be ready to strike and destroy North Korea's missile test”, Foreign Policy (22 February 2009)

The first op-ed, by a former Defense Secretary (Perry) and an Assistant Defense Secretary (Carter) in the Clinton Administration, came on the eve of the first launch of the Taepodong 2 and called on the Bush administration to conduct a preemptive strike if the North Korean authorities continued preparations. We know how that turned out. Zelikow, a career diplomat and counselor to Secretary of State Rice at the time (2005-2007), had opposed a preemptive strike at the time, by his own account arguing:
“(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.”
Zelikow believed that the conditions had been satisfied and urged the newly-minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to draw a red line. We know how that turned out as well, less than two months later.

Note that both op-eds assume that the Taepodong is a threat to Japan in the same way that it is a threat to the United States (though Carter and Perry are somewhat less explicit on that point). This is odd, since the long-range nuclear missile capability that a Taepodong 2 with a nuclear warhead poses makes sense only as a means to reach U.S. targets. Instead, it is the 200 or so land-mobile midrange Rodongs that pose an imminent danger to Japanese security.

The long-range Taepodong’s deployment may affect U.S. strategic thinking regarding retaliation under the mutual security treaty in the event of a North Korean missile attack on Japan. This is by no means trivial even if it is merely a matter of perception, since this could affect the deterrence value of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the emergence of a North Korean threat to its 50 states will change the balance of U.S. concerns between counter-proliferation and deterrence—the second rising in relative importance—and align them more closely to Japan’s.

I’m not sure where this is leading to, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

In the meantime, let me go back to the op-eds that started this train of thoughts and ask: Where did this implicit assumption by top officials that there is no discernable distinction between U.S. and Japanese interests regarding the Taepodong come from?

I think it all goes back to the late 1990s, when the Japanese government was still reluctant to sign on to the expensive and experimental missile defense system that the United States had been urging Japan to adopt. But it all changed in 1998, when North Korea flew Taepodong 1 over Japan. This was not in itself out of the ordinary if you believed that North Korea’s claim that it was a satellite launch and North Korea had observed, instead of neglected, the proper protocols regarding such an event. Of course no one believed North Korea’s claim and North Korea dispensed with the niceties. So the launch caused great public consternation in Japan and became a material factor in the Japanese government’s decision to sign on to the U.S. program (which Secretary Gates is now trying to pare back under the Obama administration). In other words, it was the Japanese public that bought into the notion that the Taepodon was a threat to Japan. The writers of the op-ed, with nothing else to go by, have unthinkingly accepted this Japanese conventional wisdom.

But this begs yet another question: Why did the Japanese authorities also buy into this idea and agree to purchase a missile defense system that, if you agree with Keiichiro Asao, does not address the main Japanese concern—the hundreds of land-mobile Rodongs whose main targets are on Japanese territory—but was instead actually geared toward the relatively small number of the more expensive and cumbersome long-range missiles that nations such as North Korea and Iran might launch against the United States. But here again, I am at a loss; I can do some speculating, but I don’t have enough dots to connect to make it anything more than a list of possibilities.

Sorry, my explanation regarding the significance of the three sets of bureaucratic appointments by Prime Minister Aso within the context of the broader relationship between politics and the bureaucracy is still on the backburners. If it turns out to be too long and complicated to deal with on a blog, I’ll put together the main points of my argument and post that.


karkemish said...

I am not an experts of ballistic missiles but I have to make a few quick points.

1)With a range of a little more than 1000 km, the Rodong 1 is classifies as a medium range ballistic missile.

2) This is precisely the type of threats the new SM-3 missiles currently carried by a few US Aegis cruisers is supposed to face. It's a theater missile defense.

3) The same system is now used by the JMSDF. I have no information on its operational statue in Japan, though.

4) The SM-3, the sea based part of the missile defense is a successful program. The satellite US 193 incident is proof of that.

So with those four points, I think it's clear that the SM-3 does respond to Japanese security needs.

Whether there is two hundreds Rodong or just one is irrelevant. I fail to see why any country under the threat of several hundred
missiles wouldn't try to obtain at least some form of limited defense. It would at the very least give some options, like launching a preemptive strike knowing that even a few missiles escape, the shield will be able to take care of it or significantly reduce the damage.

Jun Okumura said...

Karkemesh: Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You have a point there, Karkemesh, regarding the Aegis system’s role in the East Asia theater (though it serves as the boost phase system for U.S. mainland defense, which is perhaps why U.S. have stopped talking in terms of “theater missile defense” as it has deployed SM-3), so Asao and perhaps I too have been a little too skeptical of the missile defense system. But the number of Rodongs is highly relevant to the value of the Aegis-PAC-3 missile defense system as planned. If there is only one Rodong, then Metropolitan Tokyo and key military bases will be well protected. If there are two hundred and we can’t keep track of them real time so that someone—currently the United States—is able to launch a preemptive attack, then they won’t be. Since no one disputes the point that North Korea has a large number of Rodongs, which by available accounts are hard to track, the system is likely to be useful only in a scenario in which the North Korean side throws a small portion of its Rodong arsenal at Japan. That is not totally unthinkable, so the system does have more than zero value. But in all other cases, it is the threat of retaliation that is the effective deterrent. And that’s where I begin wondering about shadow Defense Minister Asao’s comment.

The successful destruction of US 193 is certainly a very impressive feat, but it was an anti-satellite hit. I’m not even a scientist or an engineer, but I have to wonder how well that transposes to a seat-of-the-pants situation regarding a missile or multiple missiles.

As I said, I’m not a scientist or an engineer, so I stand more than ready to be corrected.