China Japan Missiles

Obama Intercepts North Korean Missile with Experimental Laser-Guided Words

So President Obama’s visit to Seoul, the nuclear terrorism summit, and the DMZ has concluded without anything especially newsworthy taking place. Obama challenged North Korea to change its behavior and China to help coerce North Korea to change its behavior, but with relatively mild language that won’t deter North Korea from launching the thing. I had wondered whether the dynamic of this being an election year might tempt the President to show a little more spine than he or his predecessors have before, but his political incentive instead appears to have been to attract as little attention to the issue as possible while saying just enough to deflect criticisms from his Republican opponent.

As President Obama spoke, the North Koreans were speaking through their actions:

The North Koreans moved the main body of the Unha-3 rocket to the newly built launching station in Dongchang-ri, a village in northwest North Korea, as President Barack Obama and other world leaders traveled to Seoul over the weekend for a nuclear security summit meeting. Mr. Obama visited the border with North Korea on Sunday to show solidarity with South Korea and warn the North against further provocations. [N.Y. Times, Choe Sang-Hun]

The timing was almost certainly not coincidental. It was also classic North Korean behavior — provocation for the sake of provocation, motivated by little more than the existence of a high-profile event in, or high-profile visit to, South Korea. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Sung Yoon-Lee takes note of the seamless continuity in North Korea’s cycle of extortion, both before and after Kim Jong Il’s death. It’s frankly enough to make you wonder just how much control Kim Jong Il exercised in the years between his stroke and his death. If anything, the real shift in North Korea’s behavior came around 2010, with the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong attacks, which suggests that North Korea’s real leadership transition preceded those events. On the other hand, meetings between His Late Porcine Majesty — or someone who looked exactly like him — and Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, plus various Chinese apparatchiks, suggest that he wasn’t completely incapacitated, either.

Whoever is giving President Obama his briefings doesn’t seem to be much more certain than I am about who is really in charge, although it seems doubtful (at least, to me) that Kim Jong Eun is that person.

Mr. Obama said Sunday the situation in North Korea was still too “unsettled” for him to have developed an impression of Kim Jong Eun.

“It’s not clear exactly who’s calling the shots and what their long-term objectives are,” Mr. Obama said. “But regardless of the North Korean leadership, what is clear is they have not yet made that strategic pivot where they say to themselves, ‘What we’re doing isn’t working. It’s leading our country and our people down a dead end.’ ”

President Obama didn’t give us a tear-down-this-wall moment, but he did take this dig at the North Korean system:

“The contrast between South Korea and North Korea could not be clearer, could not be starker, both in terms of freedom but also in terms of prosperity,” he told U.S. troops stationed along the border, which is dotted with minefields and encased in barbed wire. [WSJ, Carol E. Lee]

The President’s words for China weren’t any clearer or more direct than the ones that haven’t worked before.

“My suggestion to China is that how they communicate their concerns to North Korea should probably reflect the fact that the approach that they’ve taken over the last several decades hasn’t led to a fundamental shift in North Korea’s behavior,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. [WSJ]

The president said he would attempt to enlist help from China, one of North Korea’s few allies, during a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao. Explaining his message for Hu, Obama seemed to express frustration with past failures of this approach, saying the Chinese had seemed to be “turning a blind eye” and “trying to paper over” North Korea’s provocations.

“That’s obviously not working,” Obama said. [L.A. Times, Kathleen Hennessey]

“I believe that China is very sincere that it does not want to see North Korea with a nuclear weapon,” he told a news conference in Seoul before a global summit on nuclear security. “But it is going to have to act on that interest in a sustained way.” [Reuters]

There was also a not-too-veiled threat of more sanctions:

“Every time North Korea has violated a Security Council resolution it’s resulted in further isolation, tightening of sanctions,” Mr. Obama said. “I suspect that will happen this time as well. They need to understand that bad behavior will not be rewarded.”

Mr. Obama spoke directly to North Korea’s leadership in a speech Monday morning at a university in Seoul, saying the U.S. “has no hostile intent towards your country” but will not tolerate provocative acts from Pyongyang. “You can continue down the road you are on, but we know where that leads,” Mr. Obama said. “It leads to more of the same.” [WSJ]

“Bad behavior will not be rewarded. There’s been a pattern for decades in which North Korea thought that if they acted provocatively, they would be bribed into ceasing and desisting,” Obama said at a news conference with Lee several hours after the visit to the DMZ. “We’re going to break that habit,” he said. [LAT]

If I may be so bold as to offer some gratis advice to the President, I’ll just suggest that if another U.N. resolution is all he really has in mind, all it will do is to highlight the farcical character of our response. (There are, of course, better options that don’t involve the direct use of force.)

Another card I hope he’ll play is to green-light Japan to shoot the rocket down, in the unlikely event that the Japanese are actually serious about this. Forcing Japan to cancel its annual Cherry Blossom Festival should be justification enough, even if Fukushima was probably a more important reason. A Japanese response would have the benefit of not involving us directly, and of setting Japan irreversibly down the path of protecting itself rather than perpetually relying on American taxpayers for its defense, it would also show us some fascinating reactions. For one thing, we’d get to see just how many South Koreans would rally to North Korea’s side out of sheer blind nationalism and hatred of Japan. We’d be denied that perverse joy if South Korea shoots it down, but we’d still get to enjoy watching China call on us to restrain one of our allies, as we shrug our shoulders and say it’s not our problem, and then ship the next consignments of PAC-3 Patriots and Standard-3s to Yokohama and Pusan.

And while we’re at it, Taipei.


  1. The longest-range missile declared by Taiwan (the Hsiung Feng IIE) has a range of 600-1000 kilometers, with plans to extend it to 2000 km (far enough to reach Beijing). A newer missile with a 2000 km range was allegedly tested in 2008, but I would have to question its reliability; it’s almost certain that the missile has never undergone actual long-range tests, such things being rather difficult to hide. By and large, the emphasis in Taiwan is already on missile defense, which is important, but only goes so far when your opponent has around 1,500 of them pointed at you.

    As for nukes, I doubt it. The U.S. wields enormous leverage over Taiwan and opposes them, and I see no way Taiwan could keep them a secret from the U.S. (or China, for that matter). One could theorize that the U.S. opposition is of the wink-wink sort, but it’s taken concrete against Taiwan’s nuclear programs — demanding the return of plutonium supplied for civilian use, cutting off heavy water supplies, prevailing upon Taiwan to accept IAEA inspections — and such a policy is perfectly consistent with the overall U.S. position, i.e. preserve the status quo and indefinitely postpone the tough decisions.

    Like I’ve said here before, an obstacle to Taiwanese nukes is not just the U.S. but also the ruling KMT, whose policy towards China is borderline obsequious — the latest example being the dispatching of the party’s honorary chairman to meet with Hu Jintao and talk up the discredited “one country, two areas” policy. The KMT previously did grave damage to Taiwan’s national defense by systematically blocking major appropriations bills throughout the Chen administration; similar (though scaled-down) appropriations were passed once there was no longer an opposition president to receive credit for them, suggesting that defense is a priority for the party only to the extent it can score points with the electorate. Given its China-friendly position and the absence of any great pro-nuke groundswell among the public, I would put the odds of the current administration accepting a U.S. nuke offer at somewhere around zero. The U.S. could make the offer publicly and kickstart a discussion in Taiwan (that might put pressure on the administration to take it), but this (more than a secret deal) risks pre-emptive action from China.

    That said, there are other offers the U.S. could make. It can sell the F-16C/Ds that were deep-sixed by the KMT during the Chen administration and which the U.S. has been reluctant to offer again; at this point, F-35B sales could even be considered as well. The U.S. could also drop its objection to submarine sales — especially trying for Taiwan, since it would take years to develop an indigenous capability and nobody else seems eager to sell. The most recent reports are that Taiwan is going ahead with an indigenous fleet, but we’ve heard that before and the five-year schedule seems more than a little optimistic. Some aging but still-formidable 688s could ably supplement whatever domestic models Taiwan might come up with. And then, of course, there’s the option of long-range missiles. The Ma administration is publicly committed to all of these things (except F-35Bs, since the assumption is the U.S. won’t even consider them), so it would be pretty much compelled to take them.



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