The title question really says it all. Kim Jong-un shows no signs of bowing to international pressure from China, the United States or, really, anyone. As Andrew Malcolm reported this morning, there have been multiple launches of both medium and long range missiles this month and the diminutive dictator has already announced that he’s ordered more.
These launches have had the world on edge and seen President Trump setting fire to his Twitter feed threatening retaliation. But a preemptive strike is fraught with problems. So what if we don’t actually strike North Korea, but instead blow one of his test launches out of the sky? That’s the question being posed by a number of military analysts in this Reuters report.
North Korea’s firing of a ballistic missile over Japan could increase pressure on Washington to consider shooting down future test launches, although there is no guarantee of success and U.S. officials are wary of a dangerous escalation with Pyongyang.
More attention is likely to focus on the prospects for intercepting a missile in flight after North Korea on Tuesday conducted one of its boldest missile tests in years, one government official said. (Interactive package on North Korea’s missile capabilities – tmsnrt.rs/2t0oSv7)
Such a decision would not be taken lightly given tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
The main argument in favor of this idea is that it would be an effective show of force, showing Kim that we can swat his only seriously threatening weapon down like a mosquito. Whether that would result in a change in his behavior is another question, but it might put our allies a bit more at ease while showing that we’re willing to do more than simply levy additional sanctions.
On the other side of the coin there are several arguments against it, with the primary one being a question of whether or not it would work. Our success rate in testing the missile defense system is around 60% overall and those are under conditions where we pretty much always know when the target will be launched and where it will be going. A surprise launch by North Korea would be a far more real-world test, but if we miss then everyone becomes incrementally more nervous and Kim Jong-un has something new to crow about.
Even assuming we do knock his missile down, we’re left waiting for the tiny tyrant’s response. Would he consider it an act of war? (Now that I think about it, would it be an act of war if it was clearly another test launch heading for the ocean? We test missiles all the time.) If that’s all the excuse Kim needs to let slip the hounds, we could have inadvertently started a major and ruinously damaging war.
I’m on the fence on this one. I’m so completely sick and tired of dealing with that lunatic that launching something almost seems like the default decision. But there are other actors involved in this play and there’s still a chance that this gets resolved peacefully. South Korea and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzō Abe agreed this week to “raise the pressure to max” on North Korea (whatever that means). Meanwhile, Nikki Haley (who has been the hardest of hard liners on this subject) is still taking our case to the international community, claiming on Monday that the United States will not allow Kim’s lawlessness to continue. Again, that’s a bit on the vague side when it comes to what we plan to do about it, but at least we’re putting up a united front.
Exit question: It’s something of a given that most of the world will be backing us in a war if Kim shoots first. But if we fire the first shot in anger and take down one of his missiles and it starts a war, do we retain the same international backing across the board? I’d like to think so, but we have a lot of rather shaky allies these days.