As they warned they would, the North Koreans launched a three-stage missile yesterday. As most experts expected, it did what all long-range North Korean missile tests have done: it exploded and crashed into the sea. (“I keep saying the same thing to reporters: launching rockets is hard & [North Korea] isn’t good at it,” arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis tweeted after the calamity.)
In a change from tradition, the North Koreans actually admitted that the test failed, although this may be just an attempt to prevent the world from bursting out laughing at any attempts to deny it.
It’s going to be years before the North Koreans can field a functioning ICBM, and maybe even longer before they can figure out how to make a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on top of one. (Having a nuclear bomb and a missile does not equate to having a “nuclear missile,” no more than having a stick of dynamite and a slingshot equates to having “artillery.”) The larger question is what to do about these constant displays of recklessness and aggression from this bizarre little outpost of family-style Stalinism in Asia.
The answer is to do nothing. This might seem counterintuitive, especially while the Obama administration is halting food aid and the President’s GOP challenger, Gov. Romney, is calling the launch a sign of Obama’s “incompetence.”
But increasingly, the regime of Kim Jong Il’s hapless son, Kim Jong Un is only a danger to itself and the tortured people of the North. This is not because Pyongyang and L’il Kim mean us no harm, but because there is only so much a bumbling and incompetent nation of millions of starving people can do.
If Kim really wants to start a war in Asia, he can do it. He can launch a barrage against the South, destroy or poison large parts of Seoul, and in general make an unholy mess of the peninsula. All of that, however, would only be prologue to North Korea’s inevitable defeat and Kim’s death, either by military means during a conflict, by capture and execution, or by a firing squad led by his own pissed-off generals. (See the entry for “Ceaucescu, Nicolae,” in the Big Book of Stupid Dictators.)
Back in 2oo6, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former Assistant Secretary Ashton Carter — now the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the no. 2 man in the Pentagon — argued for stopping the North Koreans from testing long-range missiles by destroying them, if need be, on the launch pad before the Norks could gain the data. I was far more sympathetic to that kind of preventive action back then, because it was hard to tell how serious Pyongyang was about going to war; the North also seemed to be deadly serious about making progress on ballistic weapons.
Today, the North is imploding, and it’s questionable whether the North Korean armed forces could do much besides inflict a lot of pain before catching a lot of bullets on their way to defeat. North Korea was a far scarier power even a decade ago, but today has no real ability to contest any kind of attack from the air or the sea. The Americans, clever people that we are, have pretty much perfected the the “attacking from the air and sea” concept, so the strategic equation doesn’t balance well for the North, no matter how bad their initial rampage.
Isolating this malignant regime is still the best approach, especially if this whole banana-peel move with the Unha-3 forces Kim to conduct another nuclear weapons test as a face-saving measure. (And the fact of the matter is that “engagement” has gotten us nowhere. Inevitably, that was going to be a Romney talking point, but it’s not wrong, either.)
Besides, if the North Koreans do manage to start testing long-range missiles that can do anything besides explode spectacularly over their own territory, there is still the Perry-Carter option of attacking those missile programs preventively. But we’d better be damn sure we’re ready for an ugly war that’s going to kill a lot of South Koreans if we feel forced down that road. We may well find ourselves there one day…but it’s not today.