North Korea has a dramatic flair for stringing along the world.
Whether it’s reactivating a long-dead plutonium reactor in the face of mounting sanctions or forcibly suspending one of the last major cooperative efforts with South Korea, Pyongyang seems intent on a self-destructive path of self-aggrandizing intimidation.
The threatened missile test over Japan of the Musudan, a medium-range missile that can hit anywhere in Japan and possibly as far as American military assets in Guam, is just the latest effort of Kim Jung-un to push the envelope. Washington and its Asia-Pacific allies are ratcheting up their ballistic missile defense and military presence in an attempt to make North Korea back down.
However, this cycle of saber-rattling and counter saber-rattling resolves nothing and worsens the situation. Continued rounds of aggressive posturing increase the likelihood of a dangerous miscalculation that could trigger outright conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
That said, the flippant domestic attitude toward North Korea is also a dangerous game to play – an appropriate level of defensive preparedness is necessary. Understating the threat North Korea poses to the Asia-Pacific region is asking for another incident like the Cheonan sinking or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
However, a massive defensive escalation in the region will only give North Korea incentives to continue its belligerent activity and increase the possibility of future tensions with countries such as China and Iran. To truly succeed at stabilizing the Korean Peninsula, the United States must halt its military escalation in the region and eliminate North Korea’s excuse for bad behavior.
North Korea lacks the technology to even achieve nuclear miniaturization — shrinking down a nuclear warhead to the point that it can be installed on a missile, much less mount warheads on the missiles needed to attack a target outside East Asia.
In recent weeks the Pentagon has beefed up defenses in the region to protect U.S. allies and troops by deploying anti-missile Aegis destroyers at sea and interceptors to Guam. In addition, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced last month that the United States would deploy an additional 14 long-range anti-missile interceptors on the U.S. West Coast. The Pentagon estimates this deployment will cost $1 billion.
This is an absurd step, given that these interceptors are unreliable at best and the Pentagon is already struggling to address budget constraints on the conventional forces we actually use.
A freeze on further US missile defense deployments until they are proven to be effective is a practical way to save costs. The U.S. and South Korean navies and American B-52 bombers running laps around the Korean Peninsula only serve to illustrate an old point: Pyongyang knows that if they go too far, the Pentagon will crush them quickly and decisively. We don’t need to endanger a peaceful solution by pushing this message any further.
Fortunately, there are signs that the Obama administration appreciates the advantages of de-escalation. Hagel’s delay of a Minuteman III ICBM test in the region was an intelligent move, and reflects a rational and objective view on national security strategy. Likewise, South Korea has its own security and economic incentives to cool the situation, particularly as President Park Geun-hye’s administration works to reassure foreign investors. However, increasing calls for nuclear armament by the South Korean public and some South Korean policymakers doesn’t help matters and will do nothing to solve their current or long-term security situation.
In as much as it is willing and able, China must actively pressure Pyongyang for positive change. If it wants to be a world player, China must assume a more active responsibility for regional security. Meanwhile, Washington must support China’s leveraging efforts while exercising temperance to create a space for diplomacy.
The United States and South Korea have more than sufficient deterrence capability. Now is the time to prove our expertise in the diplomatic field by leveraging our already-superior force to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table, and resolve this crisis peacefully.