As some of you may be aware, President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, and the Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Legally and factually, this has long been a difficult view to defend. Although this week’s threat from Pyongyang to nuke the United States (see coverage in The Washington Post and The New York Times) would not meet the strict legal definition of terrorism, because the existing definition requires the use or threat of violence by clandestine or non-state actors, this nuance will probably be lost on the average congressman or primary voter who applies a common-sense definition of what “terrorism” means. There’s little question that Pyongyang is engaging in nuclear blackmail.
Pyongyang is also claiming to have improved its nuclear facilities and capabilities. According to the regrettably acronymed Institute for Science and International Security, Kim Jong-Un is building a new facility at Yongbyon to separate different isotopes, including tritium, from spent nuclear fuel, to make even more powerful nuclear weapons.
Satellite imagery of the new building being constructed shows signatures that are “consistent with an isotope separation facility, including tritium separation,” the institute said, adding that the assessment is also shared by a government expert who has long experience in assessing activities at the Yongbyon site. [….]
“Whether North Korea can make nuclear weapons using tritium is unknown although we believe that it remains a technical problem North Korea still needs to solve. Solving this problem would likely require more underground nuclear tests,” it said. [Yonhap]
South Korea says that if North Korea does launch, it will take the case to the U.N. Security Council, ask for more sanctions, and turn the loudspeakers back on. The State Department is warning Pyongyang that its “threatening behavior and provocations,” such as “a nuclear or missile test,” would be a “mistake” that “would represent a setback in its hopes to grow its economy and to end its isolation.” John Kerry is warning Pyongyang of “severe consequences,” and is also saying that “North Korea will not be allowed to become a nuclear weapons state — even if it takes more than sanctions to convince them.” Kerry did not specify what “more than sanctions” means, but the U.S. Navy is sending Aegis destroyers to the region, which are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles with Standard-3 surface-to-air missiles. And China, while nominally calling on North Korea to comply with Security Council resolutions, is doing what it usually does: sending crude.
North Korea’s long-range missile tests have often been tied to nuclear tests. In 2006, 2009, and 2013, a missile test preceded a nuclear test by approximately three months. It looks like we may be headed into our fourth such cycle. Even so, an international nuclear crisis is no reason to lose one’s sense of humor, even if you’re a reporter for South Korea’s official news service. This line made me laugh harder than anything in The Interview did:
The North’s threat is likely to dampen South and North Korea’s hard-won conciliatory mood on the peninsula following their landmark deal on easing military tension in late August. [Yonhap]
A close second was the reaction of Christopher “Captain Obvious” Hill, a/k/a Kim Jong Hill, who comes to a Yonhap reporter bearing a stone tablet, inscribed with the revelation that our problem is North Korea’s disinclination to denuclearize. Hill was interviewed at what ought to be a legacy-defining moment, the tenth anniversary of the September 2005 Joint Statement he negotiated, and which North Korea reneged on the following day.
I suppose international outrage is useful, if someone backs it up with something more ferrous. Historically, however, that “if” has been wanting. For example, this Administration has tended to talk out of both sides of its mouth, threatening Pyongyang with more sanctions at one moment, and at the next, repeating the twaddle that North Korea is already “the most isolated, the most sanctioned, the most cut-off nation on Earth.” I’ve already written at length about the relative weakness of U.S. national sanctions, but in the last week, I’ve also looked at the existing U.N. Security Council resolutions for opportunities for improvement. As always, Iran sanctions (in this case, UNSCR 1929) are a useful model. As to the specifics, however, I’ll be saving those for something I’d prefer to publish for a wider audience.
But if, as the Joint Chiefs are now saying, North Korea is approaching the capability to hit the United States by putting a nuke on a KN-08, we’re entering a new paradigm. I’m now at the point where I believe the President should revive (in modified form) a 2006 proposal by Ashton Carter, our current Defense Secretary, and Secretary William Perry, a former Defense Secretary — to destroy the missile. To be clear, I reject (as I did then) the idea of destroying the missile on the launch pad, which would require a strike on North Korean soil. Instead, I’m talking about intercepting the missile in flight.
It’s beyond serious debate that North Korea’s missile test would be a flagrant violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. It would also be a direct threat to the security of the United States. Intercepting it over the water would threaten no one, and carries no significant risk of harming any civilian population. It would be a strictly defensive act, meant to reassure Americans — and their Asian allies — that the U.S. military will defend them from extortion. It would refute the groundless misconception by 96% of the world’s adult population that the Obama Administration is a collection of milquetoasts and masochists whose red lines are drawn in colored chalk, and whose threats are really safewords. It would embarrass China, which has willfully enabled North Korea’s progress toward a nuclear arsenal, and willfully violated the same U.N. Security Council resolutions it voted for. In doing so, the U.S. might coax Beijing into rethinking the value of enforcing sanctions. And finally, at a time when Kim Jong-Un may feel withering domestic pressure to produce a victory of intimidation over the hated American enemy, it would be an unprecedented domestic humiliation that would weaken his standing among his population, and within the ruling junta known as the Organization and Guidance Department. If an interception retards His Porcine Majesty’s unsteady consolidation of power, it might buy the U.S. more time to prevent him from taking firm control of an outlaw kingdom with no regard for human life and an effective nuclear arsenal.
Five years ago, I might not have been at this point. But now that we’ve clearly entered a cycle that has, on three prior occasions, led us to a nuclear test, it’s time to demonstrate some seriousness about breaking that cycle.