Time's Up For North Korea

The Obama administration must not allow an atomic-armed country openly hostile to the U.S. to perfect intercontinental ballistic missiles.  North Korea’s longest range missile now poised for launch should be destroyed on the launch pad to prevent the rogue nation from threatening America and her allies.

While military force should always be the action of last resort, we have reached that point with North Korea.  Every effort to quell North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has failed and the threat grows more severe.  The consequences of inaction could be worse than stopping the madness now.

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said North Korea appears to be readying another missile for launch. South Korean authorities acknowledge the communist regime moved a long-range Taepodong-2 missile to the Dongchang-Ni launch facility 120 miles northwest of Pyongyang and the regime designated a large area off its west coast as a “no-sail” zone through the end of the month.  The missile could be launch-ready by next week when South Korea’s president Lee Myung-Bak visits the White House.

Pyongyang needs at least one more test of its three-stage Taepodong-2 missile to confirm flight data before it might be ready for service.  A similar missile launched in April traveled 1,900 miles and successfully separated two stages before experiencing a catastrophic failure.  
North Korea’s engineers and scientists will use data from the recent flight to adjust the next missile’s guidance system as well as developing methods to ensure all three stages operate properly.  A successful flight could put the missile close to being ready for an atomic payload. A success will also demonstrate North Korea’s strength abroad and rally that nation as it prepares for a leadership change. Leader Kim Jong-il is terminally ill and it appears his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, has been designated the successor.

It’s unclear whether the regime has an atomic weapon sized for the Taepodong-2, but the May 25 test makes it appear that the regime is getting dangerously close to perfecting a deployable nuclear weapon.  The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency confirms the North already possesses the technology to mate an atomic warhead with a ballistic missile.

These facts indicate we are at a point requiring decisive action.  “We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction … [or transfer nuclear weapons and material] to states or non state entities,” promises Secretary Gates.  But every peaceful effort over the past two decades to dissuade Pyongyang from developing atomic tipped missiles and proliferating that technology has failed.  

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the recent missile and atomic tests by promising to send a “strong, unified” message that North Korea will face consequences for its “belligerent and provocative behavior.”   But so far Clinton’s only action has been to dispatch her deputy, James Steinberg, to consult with Asian partners. Pyongyang’s predictable response to the world’s inaction has been to prepare for another launch.

Clinton’s empty threat matches those of her husband and former President Bush. President Clinton vowed “regime change” as his North Korea policy but quickly scrapped that tough line when Pyongyang blatantly violated the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Then Clinton entered direct negotiations with the regime resulting in the 1994 Agreed Framework which gave North Korea heavy fuel oil, food and the offer of two light-water nuclear reactors at no cost.  The U.S. got only broken promises in return.

The Bush administration did no better.  After North Korea’s 2006 atomic test, President Bush imposed financial sanctions which were quickly abandoned in favor of talks with the expectation that Pyongyang would accept verifiable disarmament.  As a final accommodation, Bush removed the North from our list of state sponsors of terrorism while ignoring the regime’s uranium enrichment program and its failure to shutter the Yongbyon reactor.  

But North Korea continues to build its atomic arsenal and test missiles because it has consistently been rewarded for bad behavior and failed promises.

We must no longer gamble the communist regime can be deterred with talks, sanctions and incentives.  An unopposed and successful Taepodong-2 launch will only embolden Pyongyang and bolster other rogues such as Iran.

An air or submarine-launched cruise missile could easily destroy the thin-skinned Taepodong-2 missile on its launch site with little or no collateral damage. Striking now rather than waiting may involve risk but it is necessary.

Alternatively, we could intercept the missile after launch with proven Standard Missile-3s aboard our Aegis cruisers. Our mid-course ground-based systems in Alaska and California “have a good capability” as well, according to Secretary Gates.  Intercepting the missile once in flight rather than destroying it on the launch pad, however, allows Pyongyang to gather valuable data to continue improving the missile.   

Before destroying the missile on the pad or deciding to intercept it in flight, however, we should consult with our Asian allies and then unambiguously communicate to Pyongyang our intent to strike unless the rocket is immediately removed from the site. Our communication should indicate that another test is a clear threat to U.S. security. We should also indicate ours will be a unilateral action.  Our allies will play no role.

Pyongyang will likely respond militarily to the strike.  It will consider a range of military options but a ground invasion of South Korea is unlikely. Kim Jong-il knows that would end his regime and North Korea’s military isn’t prepared to repeat its successful offensive of 1950.  

Alternatively, Pyongyang could react with a limited bombardment of South Korea by some of its 13,000 dug-in artillery pieces and hundreds of missiles arrayed along the border.  It could also use special operations forces and missiles armed with conventional and or weapons of mass destruction such as chemical warheads.

Brig. Gen. Mike Keltz, vice commander of the 7th Air Force, stationed in South Korea, believes allied forces would quickly try to destroy the rocket and artillery facilities with up to 3,000 fighter sorties per day.  Keltz admits the aircraft would face a “very capable air defense” but the end result would not be in doubt.

Gen. George Casey, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, believes the U.S. would be well-prepared to fight a conventional war against North Korea but he cautioned it would take the army up to 90 days to “train our folks who are preparing to go to Iraq and Afghanistan to go someplace else.”  South Korea has more than 600,000 troops, backed by 28,500 U.S. troops, which could confront the North’s million-member military.

“We routinely … plan for contingencies and recognize that these issues are very serious,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Mullen warns the U.S. already has a good footprint in Northeast Asia that would be able to stage a quick response against an attack.

Pyongyang will continue its belligerent pattern of dangerous behavior unless something significant happens to change its course. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) said “It would be a grim mistake to just respond to these provocations by saying, ‘Let’s just sit down and talk to North Korea.’ I think they have to feel some pain.”

The Obama administration must recognize that North Korea has entered a “danger zone.” No one really knows how close the regime is to being able to deliver a ready-to-fire atomic tipped intercontinental ballistic missile. No one should doubt that is the goal.  America must act decisively and stop pretending diplomacy and sanctions will stop the nuclear ambitions of the madmen in Pyongyang.