The Straits Times

SEP 15 1998

The risks of fearing North Korea's missiles


THE Monica Lewinsky saga may make us feel that we live in an age of farcical politics, but in the end, the American farce will produce -- at worst -- a new President who is the right-hand man of the existing one. Nothing very special there.

But consider the importance of the theatre in North Korea which appears to be 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 funnier and more fearful heights. Japan and North-east Asia are certainly right to fear North Korea's Taepo-Dong 1 (TD-1) missile, even though it merely carried a satellite playing Pyongyang's revolutionary ditties.

The TD-1 is clearly superior technologically 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 and, in fact, Japan has more to fear from fear itself.

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 to such threats has come from the presence of impressive American military forces and 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 World War II, military strategists have understood that the best protection against missile attack is more general deterrence than missile defences.

Even before the TD-1 launch, Japan was 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 because its origins are easier to identify than a North Korean terrorist attack on Japan.

While some might believe that the natural response to the TD-1 and future models of the missile would be a Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) system suggested by the US, the decision is far from simple.

TMD 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 defence comes from robust deterrence built on closer alliance relations with the US. Any attacker must be persuaded to appreciate that it will suffer devastating retaliatory damage if it dares to launch an attack.

Japan has already begun to take steps towards closer defence relations with the US and its allies, but far more can be done.

Observers will recall that in the 1994 crisis concerning North Korea's nuclear weapons programme, Japan's opposition to robust action against the North ensured that the US had to settle for being blackmailed by North Korea into providing energy supplies and new reactors in exchange for dismantling the nuclear facilities.

Japan's weak-kneed behaviour 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, in order to ensure a unified approach.

Japan will have also noticed that China has once again proven incapable of constraining North Korea and therefore, it has no option but to move closer to the US.

Pyongyang will see the missile test as a virility symbol for the otherwise hapless North Korean regime. Mr Kim Jong Il's regime cannot be justified by economic success and so he must make do with making missile mischief.

The farce of appointing Mr Kim's dead father as president for eternity demonstrates there is little more than a coffin at the heart of the North Korean system.

The fact that it took Pyongyang five days to announce that it had launched a satellite and not a warhead was a public relations disaster that demonstrated either its wilful desire to sow fear among its neighbours or its farcical ability to manage its defence policy.

The strategy behind the TD-1 launch clearly has roots in a belief that it can scare Japan and other Western countries into providing more assistance 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 exports if it is paid upwards of US$500 million (S$870 million) a year, and the blackmail rates have no doubt risen in recent weeks.

Assuming that North Korea will not persuade the West to pay blackmail money to cease missile production, Pyongyang will expect to find ready purchasers of its more capable hardware. Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran or Libya all have reasons to want longer-range ballistic missiles.

The targets for North Korean missiles may be US bases in the Middle-East, Israel, or even European cities. Under such circumstances, 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 concessions to North Korean blackmail. Hopefully, we have learned the lesson from 1994: paying North Korean blackmail only leads to increased demands for blood money.

In the longer term, it seems clear that we will be living in a world where the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction increases, as does the effective means of long-range delivery. Hence, the deep worry about the American contribution to the farce of the TD-1 test -- the inability of the world's largest defence establishment to tell if the ballistic missile launch lofted a satellite or a warhead.

The fact that US intelligence failed so badly bodes ill for those who put their faith in an effective theatre missile defence.

It seems that if North-east Asians are to meet the challenges of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, they will have to do so in closer cooperation in counter-proliferation with fellow targets in Europe and North America. That is the true lesson of the North Korean missile farce. 

[The writer is Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London. He contributed this article to The Straits Times.]



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