I had just written up some light summer fare—new academic writing on the North Korean nuclear program!—and news of the Hwasong 12 (probably) launch over Japan comes across the wire. My bottom line: this launch was perfectly calibrated to create political mischief. Not only does it fly beneath the threshold at which a military response is recognized as absolutely necessary by all three relevant parties, South Korea, the US and Japan. It also drives wedges between Beijing and Seoul, Tokyo and Washington as well because of the natural inclination for the two major allies to strengthen their ties with the US. The only issue is whether Kim Jong Un miscalculated with respect to Trump. My hunch is that the answer is “no”: fire and fury aside, the US will probably not take the taunt and respond militarily, but will try to stay the course of the “peaceful pressure” campaign outlined by Secretary Tillerson (See here and here). But times like this tempt every North Korea watcher to the dark side. Will someone just take him out already?
First, the basics. After a pause, North Korea resumed testing with three shorter range rockets from the East Coast over the weekend (one blew up, but in missile testing failures also mean learning). The missile that overflew Japan was probably a Hwasong 12 or KN-17, and was launched from Sunan, north of Pyongyang and apparently very near the country’s airport (as usual, Anna Fifield at the Washington Post had the most plugged in early coverage, claiming that US intelligence had monitored the movement of the missile two hours prior to firing).
North Korea oddly benefits from a Japan that is tying itself more and more closely to the US, precisely because the heartburn it will cause in Beijing.
Let’s take each of the three parties in turn. With respect to South Korea, Moon Jae-in’s learning curve has proven steep and on full public display. On Monday—in the wake of the short-range tests—he sounded both right and left themes. He restated his intention to shift to “offensive operations” if North Korea “crosses the line or attacks a metropolitan center.” At the same time, he bemoaned that the South didn’t have an independent military option and had to rely on the US, lines that echoed the Roh Moo-hyun era. The immediate response to the Japanese test, by contrast, was focused on the alliance and in a way that is likely to rile China. Initial reports suggest that the Moon administration has agreed to seek deployment of “additional strategic US military assets to the Korean Peninsula”—whatever that means—but more importantly would consider placing additional THAAD launchers in place, and even quite explicitly under US command, another standing sore point. It is pretty clear to see how this will pull China back to its maddening “calm on all sides” statements and drive wedges between Beijing and Seoul.
The picture with the US is probably the most worrying of the triangle. There has been some disturbing speculation about command and control of the US nuclear force in recent weeks that is indicative of the broader concern. At Foreign Policy, Susan Hennessey and Ben Wittes make the alarmist case. Although the command and control system has numerous checks between the president and an actual launch, the decision to launch does not have a two-person rule: the president has the legal authority to launch a nuclear strike. Peter Feaver (Duke) on NPR is at least somewhat more sanguine that other checks would in fact operate. As he puts it, “if the president is banging on the table in anger with no provocation, I don’t think the system would respond the way the critics worry about. If the president reaches the decision after conferring with his advisers and then makes the decision, then the system will carry out the order.” The checks in Feaver’s views are not the legal ones, which as Hennessey and Wittes note are thin, but the political judgment of those down the chain of command about whether the president’s order appears rational.
That we are talking about this at all is unnerving. But the question now is not about a nuclear response, it’s about a conventional response. President Trump’s comments about not sending missiles in the direction of Guam might have had effect; Kim Jong Un backed away from those threats. But Secretary Tillerson’s comments about restraint and President Trump’s about respect are ringing a little hollow. However, the quality of the options has not magically improved.
Finally, two things came across our desk about BMD that are directly relevant to Japan’s response. First, Ankit Panda has an incredibly useful and terse introduction to defensive capabilities in the region at the Council on Foreign Relations. One of the important points made by Panda concerns Japanese capabilities. Japan, signaling its intent to intercept North Korea's potential missile launch, deployed its Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors to Shimane, Hiroshima, and Kochi along a Guam flight path. But as Panda notes, “while both the SM-3 and THAAD interceptors have proven capabilities against IRBM-class targets and would be able to engage a hypothetical North Korean launch toward Guam, the Japan-based PAC-3 systems would not be able to actually intercept North Korean IRBMs flying over Japan”; they are optimized for attacks on Japan and would be of use primarily in shooting down threatening debris were an attack on Guam to transpire. Of course, the same judgments pertain to this overflight and raise questions about what new capabilities Japan may now be pushed to acquire.
The question, however, also hinges on Japanese willingness to enter the fight. On those broader political issues, John Nilsson-Wright has a useful piece at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Nilsson-Wright notes that Japan has in fact acquired more capabilities: these include cruise missiles and advanced satellite guidance technology that would allow Japan to intercept North Korean missiles either on the point of launch or potentially pre-emptively. But he rightly hedges on whether these capabilities would be used. He reports some public opinion polling showing a surprising level of support—31%—in favor of preventive or pre-emptive options vis-à-vis North Korea. This is hardly a majority, but nonetheless helps explain why Abe was able to expand Japan’s freedom of maneuver in the fall of September 2015. Again, the logic outlined above holds with respect to Japan as well. North Korea oddly benefits from a Japan that is tying itself more and more closely to the US, precisely because the heartburn it will cause in Beijing.