Monday, April 6, 2009

Another Fizzle: Best Possible Outcome on North Korea?

Yes, North Korea defied United Nations regulations and test-fired a multi-stage Taepodong-2 missile over the weekend. Yes, North Korea has some nuclear weapons capability. Yes, if the missile test had been successful it could potentially have reached Alaska or Hawaii. But it wasn't successful; the second stage didn't fire fully and the third stage not at all, leaving the hyped satellite in "subaquatic orbit" as a commenter from the wonderful geeks at Arms Control Wonk put it (the image is also from ACW).
Before the launch the debate ran rampant among the nonproliferation policy community about how to respond to the launch. Some advocated using either U.S. or Japanese resources to shoot it down in midflight, to the point that Kim Jong-Il stated that such actions would lead to war. South Korea shouted about how scared they were, but an ICBM isn't at all necessary to hit South Korea, so the test shouldn't seem any more threatening.
The failed launch can be considered the best possible outcome. Since 2006 North Korea now has two highly-publicized missile launch failures (the 2006 test after only 35 seconds) and a largely failed nuclear test. Why should that scare anyone, particularly the United States (Joseph Cirincione argues this at length)? Miniaturizing a nuclear device to fit on a warhead is quite difficult, and North Korea would be hard pressed to do it in a decade. Even then, given their track record, what are the odds that all three stages of an ICBM and a miniaturized warhead would work?
As Fred Kaplan argues, making a big deal about a missile launch that ultimately failed was the action of a weak state, not a strong one, and President Obama should not play North Korea's game. Frankie Sturm agrees, calling for managing North Korea's brinksmanship. John Bolton calls the launch a win for North Korea and says Obama is weak, but considering he worked for an administration with the least diplomatic success in the past 50 years, whose actions (or lack thereof) allowed North Korea to reprocess plutonium and test a nuclear device I take that as a good sign.
President Obama has demonstrated his leadership by not spending too much energy on a UN resolution, and instead focusing on the larger real nonproliferation issues, including a call for global nuclear disarmament in Sunday's speech. As the New York Times stated, again echoing me,
It is a strategy based on the idea that if the United States shows it is willing to greatly shrink the size of its atomic arsenal, ban nuclear testing and cut off the worldwide production of bomb material, reluctant allies and partners around the world will be more likely to rewrite nuclear treaties and enforce sanctions against North Korea and Iran.

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