In a less-than-shocking turn of events, North Korea has announced that it will launch a satellite into orbit next month. This launch, as with the last satellite launch, will amount to a ballistic missile test; United Nations Security Council resolutions have banned such launches. Better yet, Pyongyang has said it will launch the missile southward—potentially over South Korean territory. Such a move would be highly provocative, to say the least.
Put simply, this test cannot be permitted, especially as it comes in the immediate wake of the (poorly considered) U.S. deal with the North: food aid in return for a number of North Korean concessions including a moratorium on long-range missile tests. The United States has already called “on North Korea to adhere to its international obligations, including all relevant U.N. Security Council Resolutions.” Such admonishments are unlikely to be convincing.
Rather, if the United States wishes for North Korea to take it seriously—if Pyongyang is ever to take seriously the accords it agrees to—then Washington must demonstrate a seriousness of purpose that has too often been lacking. In this regard, President Obama has two options. He can order that U.S. forces strike the missile on the launch pad or, somewhat less provokingly, order that missile defense assets shoot it down after launch.
Some, of course, will argue that an American resort to military means so early in Kim Jong-un’s rule will irreparably sour a potentially more productive relationship than that with Kim Jong-il. But it is Kim who has broken faith only two weeks after the first U.S.-DPRK bilateral agreement. The relationship soured the moment Pyongyang announced the satellite launch.
Others will say that U.S. military action will enhance North Korea’s drive for nuclear weapons and make a spring nuclear test more likely. But the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests followed U.N. Security Council condemnations of earlier missile tests. In other words, North Korea’s bar for conducting nuclear tests is already set fairly low. (Maybe we should just ignore the missile launch, chalk it up to Kim being Kim?)
Finally, some will counter that use of force is needlessly escalatory. But escalation is precisely what is needed. Unless the United States responds decisively to Kim Jong-un’s first provocation as the leader of North Korea, it will have reason to expect more of the same in the coming years.
If the United States responds militarily to the planned rocket launch, it will demonstrate to those around Kim that he cannot act without fear of consequence as his father could. It will help prevent “young Kim from establishing his bona fides as the new strongman in Pyongyang.” And given that the launch will likely result in the withholding of recently promised U.S. food aid, the new leader may face heightened civil discontent as well.
If, in the long term, the United States has an interest in a unified Korea under Seoul’s democratic leadership, then Washington must take steps to weaken Kim now. True, allowing Kim to further consolidate his rule may buy us short-term stability (I use the term loosely). But we’ve been watching that movie for the past few decades and we haven’t been enjoying it. Isn’t it time to change the DVD?
By Michael Mazza for The American