North Korea’s satellite test using ballistic missile technology highlights the danger of North Korean proliferation. Each multi-stage rocket test that North Korea conducts, whether they are called satellite launches or missile tests, brings North Korea closer to the day it can launch a nuclear strike. This is why former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sounded the alarm regarding North Korean missile development in January 2011.
The June 2010 Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force Report on the Korean Peninsula highlighted both vertical proliferation (North Korea’s indigenous development of a delivery capability for WMD) and horizontal proliferation (whereby North Korea sells or transfers nuclear material to other state or non-state actors) as priority sources of concern. The most effective response to North Korean horizontal proliferation has been the October 2007 Israeli air strike on a nuclear reactor under construction in Syria that was designed as a plutonium factory.
Until the Israeli strike, it was not publicly known that North Korea was providing technical assistance in the construction of a reactor at a location within Syria that had no associated facilities for production of nuclear power. The Israeli strike has not put an end to North Korean horizontal proliferation efforts, as indicated by reports from the UN Panel of Experts assembled to evaluate implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which puts into place an international framework for stopping instances of North Korean horizontal proliferation. But there has been no deterrent effort analogous to the Israeli strike on the Syrian facilities to stop North Korea from pursuing vertical proliferation by extending its own missile delivery capabilities.
A direct strike on North Korean launch facilities would carry with it considerable political risks, even if it might be the only effective way to send a message to North Korea that long-range missile tests of any kind are unacceptable. This is why no country has pursued this policy option despite North Korea’s three previous tests, each of which has resulted in ultimately meaningless sanctions and hortatory statements from the UN Security Council. UN resolutions have not stopped North Korea from pursuing its plans. Instead, without teeth or the collective will to comprehensively implement sanctions, the UN Security Council and its ineffective efforts probably only give Pyongyang a green light for future launches.
The region’s anxiety regarding North Korean satellite launch preparations is palpable. South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan have all reported that they are prepared to shoot down satellite debris in the event that it threatens their respective territories. But there has been little public discussion of options to prevent North Korea’s launch from going forward. Former Prime Minister Abe raised the possibility of preemption in connection with North Korea’s failed 2006 satellite launch, but such a course of action by Japan would be enormously controversial and might ignite a constitutional crisis.
A South Korean civilian commission set up to review defense policy following the March 2010 Cheonan incident recommended in December 2010 that South Korea pursue a policy of “proactive deterrence,” seeming to advocate a preemptive option in response to future North Korean provocations; the South Korean defense minister has recently underscored South Korea’s will to retaliate strongly against North Korean provocations, but there has been little South Korean public discussion of preemption against North Korea’s satellite launch preparations.
Current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and former Secretary of Defense William Perry advocated preemption in advance of North Korea’s July 2006 missile test, but the Obama administration did not pursue this option prior to North Korea’s April 2009 launch. President Obama’s message to North Korea delivered in his March 26 speech at Hankook University of Foreign Studies in Seoul signals the likelihood of a U.S. response to perceived violations of international rules, but does not signal willingness to take preemptive action to prevent such violations. Direct diplomacy has been limited since U.S. negotiators thought that they had made clear to North Korea that a satellite launch would be a deal-breaker in advance of the U.S. and DPRK Leap Day statements.
China’s President Hu Jintao faced stern requests to restrain North Korea from making the launch during his participation in the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, but Beijing knows that North Korea has tied the launch to domestic factors and fears actions that might upset North Korea’s domestic political consolidation. Also, it is not clear China-DPRK high-level communications channels are working well following Kim Jong Il’s death.
China’s major diplomatic test will occur after North Korea’s test, at which time there will be great pressure to return this issue to the UN Security Council. China accommodated the international consensus with a UN Security Council Resolution and Presidential Statement condemning North Korea’s past missile launches in 2006 and 2009, to which North Korea responded consistently in both years withnuclear tests. Following the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, China blocked even a UN discussions of any statement condemning North Korea. A UN Security Council failure to condemn a North Korean launch in the wake of the 2009 resolution would be an embarrassment to both the Obama administration and the UN Security Council.
There is clearly no country in East Asia that has the capacity or will to use force as a means to limit North Korean provocative actions. Until there is an “Israeli option” that breaks the cycle of North Korean impunity for its destabilizing actions, expect North Korea to take advantage of neighboring countries’ fears of North Korean instability to impose on its neighbors the increasingly exorbitant costs of North Korea’s regime survival.
*An earlier version of this blog was published in the CSIS Korea Platform.