North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in an Oct. 28, 2020, file photo.
A line from Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” sums up the responses to North Korea’s continued missile testing so far: “Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” Yes, Kim Jong Un is violating multiple United Nations resolutions while the U.S. and the U.N. keep piling on sanctions. And yet, Kim marches on toward achieving a deliverable nuclear capability that can reach U.S. territory. The sound and fury generated in the wake of each test is like an annoying barking dog, as far as Kim is concerned.
Why does Kim continue to bear the hardships of increasingly stringent sanctions and falling deeper into pariah-state status? It’s because the primary objectives of the leadership of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) are to ensure regime survival and to deter feared U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) efforts to unify the Korean Peninsula.
Most specialists on North Korea agree that the DPRK considers acquiring a demonstrated nuclear capability to be the only certain insurance against forced regime change. It is unlikely that Kim could be pressured into negotiating away these programs. So, while it would be prudent for the Biden administration to attempt to engage with North Korea to negotiate a solution to its growing missile and nuclear programs, prospects for success are not good. We should keep all options on the table as possible responses to the North’s aggressive actions, but clearly the use of force to deal with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs is an unlikely option. The known and disastrous consequences of even a conventional war on the peninsula are just too great.
So, what is to be done? The nuclear deterrence policy has prevented the use of Soviet and/or Russian nuclear weapons since the dawn of the nuclear age. Even in the depths of several major crisis situations, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear use was not considered a viable response. Nuclear deterrence has worked against Russia, and it will work against North Korea. The U.S. and South Korean governments have no intention of invading North Korea, Kim’s paranoia aside. And as long as U.S.-ROK conventional capabilities are maintained at high readiness, it’s unlikely the DPRK would attempt to invade the South.
While diplomacy always should be on the table, the U.S. needs to articulate a clear and forceful re-emphasis of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy so that Kim understands exactly what the consequences of nuclear use would be.
Diplomatic efforts and deterrence are important, but they are not sufficient and must be backed by capable missile defenses deployed in a manner clearly able to defend against North Korean missiles, should they be launched at South Korea, Japan or the United States. America has been planning defenses with the South Korean and Japanese governments for decades on a bilateral basis, and operational planning is well advanced. All three governments face the same threat from North Korea. Given North Korea’s continued reckless actions, the U.S. should take the lead to bind these bilateral efforts into a coordinated missile defense structure that can maximize efforts to intercept short-, medium-, intermediate- and long-range missiles launched against any of the three partners.
Japan and South Korea deploy a range of missile defense capabilities, many co-produced with or purchased from the U.S. And the U.S. deploys significant missile defense assets in both countries. Japan has been a key international partner with the U.S. in the joint development of missile defense systems, contributing well over $1 billion and purchasing its own Aegis Cruisers armed virtually the same as their U.S. counterparts. Japan deploys short-, medium- and intermediate-range missile defense systems and is the home base for two U.S. TPY-2 radars forward-deployed as part of the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system. South Korea has significant radar and short-range missile defense capabilities and the U.S. deploys air and missile defense assets in South Korea. Both South Korean and Japanese leaders recognize the threat that North Korea poses, and bilateral cooperation has achieved much.
An effective integrated missile defense would include linking these national assets together to provide, at the very least, better shared early warning; a single, integrated, common air picture; and command and control interconnectivity and communication to provide deconfliction of targets and engagement control. Such interconnectivity would benefit Japanese Patriot systems by providing advance notice of missiles that get by their Aegis systems and better clarity of when and from where missiles are coming. Some of this is done currently with the U.S. as a hub and Japan and the ROK as two spokes. But, to this point, political sensitivities have precluded three-way cooperation, making the arrangement inefficient, slow and insufficiently capable.
Some might argue that if North Korea is allowed to acquire long-range missile capability coupled with nuclear warheads, Japan and South Korea would have no choice but to acquire their own nuclear weapons. The U.S. deploys about 27,000 military personnel in South Korea and 54,000 in Japan. Since these U.S. forces would be impacted if North Korea launched a nuclear attack, both Japan and South Korea are covered by a de facto U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Given clear North Korean intent to continue nuclear and missile development programs, the best response is for the U.S., Japan and South Korea to improve three-way cooperation in missile defense to ensure we have in place an effective defense against nuclear attack, should deterrence fail.
John Fairlamb, Ph.D., is a retired Army colonel who served for 45 years as a commissioned officer and Department of the Army civilian in various Joint Service positions formulating and implementing national security strategies and policies. His doctorate is in comparative defense policy analysis.