An Old Friend: The Specter of Nuclear War

On Tuesday as Americans were celebrating the successful launch of the space shuttle Discovery and their nation’s birthday, that reclusive, despotic, and ultimately belligerent nation of North Korea determined to flex its muscle by at last launching a number of missiles it had poised in launch configuration since mid-May. Of most concern since the threat of the test launches arose has been the maiden shot of the Taepodong-2, an intercontinental ballistic missile purportedly capable of reaching the continental US. It malfunctioned approximately 40 seconds into its flight, however. The weeks leading up the tests have been marked by strong rhetoric from both sides. US, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, and South Korean officials have urged North Korea to refrain from such provocation, while North Korea stiffly asserted it right to fire such missiles and that it would respond to preemption with nuclear war.
Now that North Korea has gone ahead with the tests, the international community has responded with remarkable unanimity in opposition to the tests, to the extent that it prompted chief US negotiator Christopher Hill to comment that “it’s really quite unprecedented the degree to which everybody lined up opposed to these launches…”.
Japan took the lead in urging for a quick response, taking their proposal for a resolution before the United Nations early Wednesday. Japan’s proposed resolution would impose harsh sanctions on North Korea and demand a halt to missile programs there.
While the international community was discussing the appropriate response, analysts began taking to the airwaves and cyberspace atwitter with their evaluations of the North Korean aggression. The “experts” debated the significance on the choosing of July 4 for the tests, and how many missiles indeed were fired, and how much of a threat they posed. Most, however, agree that it showed that the threat posed to the US by North Korea’s Taepodong-2 is minimal at best. quoted Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, saying that “the failure of the first stage of the Taepodong-2 missile, after working in 1998, could underscore that North Korea ‘hadn’t done much with this missile in 10 years’.”
Indeed, the failure of the vaunted but not so well respected Taepodong underlines the apparent fecklessness of the North Koreans in attempting to threaten the continental US with a nuclear weapon. However, while North Korea at this time does not pose a serious security risk to US soil, it does pose a very serious risk in that it does have the capability to strike South Korea and Japan with lesser missiles. And the US has very vital interests in both countries. A look at the numbers spells out clearly the threat we face.
The US has maintained a strong military presence in South Korea since the Korean War, and currently has over 30,000 troops stationed in South Korea. North Korea has reported 600 or more tried-and-true Scud missiles that can easily reach South Korea, a clear threat to US interests there, not to mention to the South Koreans and an economy that did over 80 billion dollars in trade with the US last year.
Japan’s leadership in the forming a response to the North Korean threat is none too surprising. Japan’s position in the international economic community is unquestioned; it did almost 200 billion dollars in trade with the US alone last year. Japan with its over 127 million people is within range of the reportedly up to 200 Rodong missiles in North Korea’s arsenal.
So it is clear that even if US soil is unreachable by North Korea’s archaic missiles, some of its very close economic and diplomatic partners are. And that means the US is inextricably linked to the region and thus has an enormous stake in how the Korean Missile Crisis shakes out. It is important for US to realize that there really is no silver lining in this cloud; the threat is real, it is now, and it must be the focus of US foreign policy at this point.