The US Dilemma: Shoot Down North Korean Missiles or Negotiate an End to Them?
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By Dr. Stephen Schwalbe
Faculty Member, Public Administration at American Military University
This past Monday, Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that the United States did not shoot down a recently launched North Korean ballistic missile over Japan, because it did not threaten any property as it fell harmlessly into the ocean.
However, there are a few things wrong with this statement by Mattis.
By not shooting down North Korean missiles, North Korea and the U.S. would be able to collect more missile flight data for future reference. However, the failure to destroy a North Korean ballistic missile in flight also increases the suspicion that the U.S. cannot effectively engage them.
Shooting down a North Korean ballistic missile would validate the billions of dollars the U.S. has invested in ballistic missile defense over many years. In addition, a successful missile engagement would send a powerful message – not only to North Korea, but also to China and Russia as well – that the U.S. means business.
Could Fear of Failure Be a Reason for Not Shooting Down Missiles From North Korea?
Perhaps the possibility of failure is one reason why the U.S. has not attempted to shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile. If the U.S. were unsuccessful, the failure might call into question or eliminate the deterrent factor that American anti-ballistic missile defenses – such as the Patriot, THAAD and Aegis cruiser interceptors – have around the world.
Shooting down a North Korean missile is no easy task. When ballistic missiles pass their initial phase of flight, they are too high to shoot down. When missiles are in their terminal phase, anti-missile defenses must be in the proper position to successfully engage them.
To successfully engage and shoot down a North Korean ballistic missile landing in the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. would need to have Aegis cruisers patrolling the target area. Since the U.S. does not know in advance precisely when North Korean launches will occur or where the missiles are headed, stationing the cruisers around Japan becomes impractical.
In any case, North Korea’s continuing ballistic missile launches are targets of opportunity that the U.S. somehow needs to exploit as soon as possible for numerous reasons. The most important of those reasons is that a U.S. interception of a North Korean ballistic missile would send an undeniable message to Pyongyang that its missile efforts are fruitless and that the U.S. means business.
Mattis Claims Military Option Poses No Threat to Seoul
Mattis also said he believed there were military options for attacking North Korea that would not put Seoul at risk. However, he did not elaborate on what those options were.
But it is safe to assume that any U.S. attack on North Korea – either by a Special Forces team intent on assassinating Kim Jong Un or a full-scale air assault on North Korea’s air defenses and command and control facilities – would likely result in a massive North Korean artillery barrage on Seoul. That attack would likely involve high explosives and chemical munitions, resulting in millions of human casualties.
Risking the lives of tens of millions of Koreans seems unconscionable. As an analogy, I would not want the leader of another country deciding whether or not to risk the lives of the citizens of Los Angeles in some retaliatory strike.
Tillerson: Negotiations Could End North Korea’s Missile Threat
In a television interview on Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the State Department is ready to negotiate with North Korea right now. However, Tillerson characterized the talks as “denuclearization” negotiations.
That is a one-sided approach. The U.S. wants to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons (which Kim has said would never happen) and to terminate its ballistic missile testing program.
To negotiate effectively requires some sacrifice from both sides. What would the U.S. be willing to sacrifice to get North Korea to at least end its ballistic missile launches?
As the moment, that is unclear. In the meantime, the silence from the North Koreans has been deafening.
This lack of response from Kim Jong Un is leading the U.S. to believe that the only option left is a military one. That would potentially sacrifice tens of millions of North and South Koreans and plunge the world economy into another great recession. (President Trump said as much when he threatened to “totally destroy” the Kim Jung Un regime in his General Assembly speech on Monday.)
The United States should consider letting North Korea know (through China) that the U.S. is willing to withdraw its ground forces from South Korea and terminate its annual combined military exercise Ulchi Freedom Guardian with South Korea. In return, North Korea would agree to halt any further ballistic missile launches.
While the North Korean leadership has requested these moves numerous times over the years, perhaps now is the time to discuss them with the North and South Koreans, as well as with China.
About the Author
Dr. Stephen Schwalbe is an associate professor at American Military University. He is also an adjunct professor at Columbia College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Stephen served as a Defense Attache in South Korea from 1995-1997.
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