Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.04.11

Missile Defense Against North Korea

North Korea, ignoring the international call for restraint, launched "a satellite (missile)" at the end of the last year, followed by a third nuclear test on February 12. This has resulted in tense relations between North Korea and the international community. On March 7, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution that imposes a new set of sanctions on North Korea. U.N. sanctions against the DPRK have long been in place, but, this time, the sanctions are tougher and, in particular the financial sanctions, are enhanced. Not only Japan and South Korea, both of which are directly threatened by the DPRK nuclear program, but also the United States, and even China and Russia, which usually, and in varying degrees, tend to show understanding for the DPRK, all have criticized North Korea's actions. According to the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., her counterpart from China had, more than ever previously, been irritated by North Korea's nuclear test more.

Despite all this criticism, North Korea's attitude has remained combative, not only in ignoring the UN Security Council Resolution, but in its vehement bellicosity. The DPRK has long denounced UN resolutions, but on March 11, after the new resolution had been adopted, it declared invalid its armistice agreement with the U.N. Forces. This is the day on which the United States and South Korea started their joint military exercises, called "Key Resolve." The exercise is to prepare for military contingencies on the Korean Peninsula and is undertaken annually by the U.S. and South Korea. North Korea, however, has characterized it as "a clear declaration of war against the DPRK" and claimed "the United States cooked up such a 'resolution on the sanctions' against the DPRK against the backdrop of the on-going Key Resolve and Foal Eagle joint military exercises," and asserted that such sanctions are "unethical criminal acts to attain its goal of aggression by threatening not only the DPRK's sovereignty but it's vital rights. It is, therefore, little short of a war action."

This reaction demonstrates that, even though its language may be hysterical, exaggerated and bellicose, the DPRK genuinely detests the UNSC resolutions and the U.S.-ROK joint military exercises. It seems that, in order to challenge these actions, North Korea invoked the armistice treaty, and claimed that the U.S. and South Korea are acting in violation of the treaty, which resulted in DPRK's announcement that it has withdrawn from it. Whether such action is convincing in the eyes of the international community is questionable, but it nonetheless probably achieves certain goals within the DPRK.

Faced with these circumstances, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel stated that "I am announcing a series of steps the United States will take to stay ahead of the challenge posed by Iran and North Korea's development of longer-range ballistic missile capabilities. First, we will strengthen homeland missile defense by deploying 14 additional Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) at Ft. Greely, Alaska." Because of the decision to cut the U.S. defense budget, the additional cost of this missile defense deployment will be covered by restructuring the budget for missile defense in Europe.

Deployment of this missile defense against the DPRK is intriguing from the viewpoint of traditional nuclear deterrence theory.

First, the United States has strong power of nuclear deterrence. So why does it need missile defense? Deterrence is the power to deter an attack by an enemy. Although deterrence does work with conventional weapons, due to the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence is very effective. Recently, the quality of DPRK's nuclear weapons and their means of delivery have improved, and they are now capable of attacking the United States. So, it is understandable why the U.S. would want to defend against them. But with its enormous nuclear arsenal and their power of deterrence, why does the U.S. need to be afraid of the DPRK? The differences between these two countries are huge, like comparing a grand champion sumo wrestler and a trainee. During the Cold War, the nuclear deterrence power of the U.S. was against the Soviet Union, despite the latter having more nuclear weapons and, commensurately, it would be so much more effective against the DPRK. So wouldn't the deployment of missile defense be rather redundant? If, however, the deployment of missile defense is genuinely necessary, doesn't that imply a certain admission of the ineffectiveness of nuclear deterrence on the part of the U.S.?

Second, deployment of missile defense against an enemy's missiles results in the enemy enhancing its own missile performance in order to defeat a missile defense system, leading to an arms race. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union confronted this dilemma, eventually agreeing that missile defense should be limited, which resulted in their signing the ABM Treaty. This Treaty was later abandoned by the U.S., but the fact nonetheless remains that there is a danger that missile defense systems would contribute to arms race. This would apply equally to the DPRK. If one nation deploys missile defense, then, unfortunately, the DPRK will endeavor to enhance the performance of its missiles to defeat such defenses.

The current situation involving nuclear deterrence and missile defense is both highly complicated and somewhat contradictory. Simply applying theories does not lead to the correct conclusion, and what I have written is simply a starting point for discussion. I hope that North Korea and the United States will reach the best conclusion for the world, without either putting on the pretense of being tough or vulnerable.