28 September 1998

World View

Pyongyang's Serious Farce

If everyone stays calm, there are useful lessons to be learned from the latest missile crisis.

By Gerald Segal


North Korea provokes analogies to something that is a cross between the farces of Gilbert and Sullivan and the fears of George Orwell's "1984." The latest crisis over North Korean missiles takes us to both funnier and more fearful heights. Japan and Northeast Asia are certainly right to fear North Korea's

Taepodong 1 (TD-1) missile, even though it merely carried a satellite playing Pyongyang's revolutionary ditties. The TD-1 is technologically superior to the earlier generation of shorter-range Scud and Rodong missiles. The fact that the TD-1, with a 2,000-km range, has three stages and could launch a satellite into space indicates that much progress has been made towards developing an intercontinental range weapon that could hit all of Asia and Alaska. But the threat has important limits; Japan, in particular, has more to fear from fear itself.

True, the TD-1 makes Japan and US bases on Japanese territory more vulnerable, but Japan has long been vulnerable to far more accurate and powerful Russian and Chinese missiles. Deterrence of such threats has come from the presence of impressive American military forces and, recently, increasing signs that Japan is prepared to do more to defend its territory and interests in closer collaboration with the United States. Ever since primitive ballistic missiles were first used against Britain in the closing phases of the Second World War, military strategists have understood that the best protection against missile attack is more general deterrence-not missile defenses.

Indeed, even before the TD-1 launch, Japan has been vulnerable to attacks from North Korea in the form of kamikaze air strikes or ship-borne or terrorist-borne explosive devices, perhaps with chemical or biological weapons. In some senses the TD-1 is less useful than these other threats, because its origins are easier to identify than a North Korean terrorist attack on Japan.

Some might think that the natural response to the TD-1 and future models of the missile would be a Theatre Missile Defense (TMD) system. But such systems do not yet exist, are unlikely to provide full protection, and in any case would leave Japan vulnerable to other forms of delivery. In the end, the best defense comes from a robust deterrence built on closer relations with the US and its allies.

Japan has already begun to take steps down that road, but far more can be done. In the 1994 crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program, Japan's opposition to robust action against the North ensured that the US was blackmailed by North Korea into providing energy supplies and new reactors, in exchange for dismantling the nuclear facilities. Japan's weak-kneed behavior in 1994 is what leads North Koreans to believe that blackmail can work again. Thankfully, there are now signs that Japan understands the need to work more closely on security matters not only with the US, but also with South Korea. Japan will have also noticed that China has once again proven incapable of constraining North Korea; so Japan has no option but to move closer to the US.

Pyongyang will see the missile test as a virility symbol for its otherwise hapless regime. The farce of appointing Kim Jong Il's dead father as president for eternity demonstrates there is little more than a coffin at the heart of North Korean system. And North Korea still doesn't get the importance of public relations, either; becayse the satellite quickly fell out of orbit, Pyongyang at first pretended it never happened. After five days of withering verbal attacks, North Korea then claimed it was merely a benign satellite.

That doesn't mean North Korea is crazy. Clearly, the strategy behind the TD-1 launch is to use it to lever more assistance from Japan and others at a time of a dire North Korean economic crisis. North Korea is the world's largest exporter of ballistic missiles and a rogue's gallery of observers from the likes of Iraq, Iran and Libya watched the TD-1 launch. Pyongyang has indicated that it might moderate its missile exports if it is paid upwards of $500 million a year-no doubt the blackmail rates have risen in recent weeks.

If the west won't pony up, Pyongyang will expect to find ready purchasers of its hardware. Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran or Libya all have reasons to want longer-range ballistic missiles. The most sensible immediate response from Japan and other powers to North Korea's new missiles is to stay calm. Exaggerated fears lay the groundwork for yet more concessions to North Korean blackmail. Meanwhile, the west should note one salient truth right now: The American contribution to the farce of the TD-1 test was an inability to tell the difference between a ballistic missile launch that lofted a satellite, and one that carried a warhead. That bodes ill for those who put their faith in an effective theatre missile defense. It implies, rather, that those if Northeast Asians are to meet the challenges of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, they will have to do so in closer cooperation on matters of counter-proliferation with fellow targets in Europe and North America. Worldwide, rogue states must learn that they will suffer devastating retaliation if they dare to press ahead with missile attacks. If the world takes that lesson from the latest North Korean farce, it will not have been without some serious purpose.

Segal is the Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London