Almost 15 years ago, I sat in the White House with President George W. Bush and his senior advisers and listened to the case that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, requiring us to invade. I accepted the argument and voted for the war. I’ve regretted the premise of that vote ever since.
Now we are faced with the possibility that North Korea is quickly acquiring the ability to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon. With North Korea continuing to provoke and inflame tensions at a rapid pace and President Donald Trump saying that America could use its “considerable military forces” and is contemplating “very severe things” in response, I don’t underestimate the menace. But that’s why it is important now more than ever to make sure that we get it right.
First, we should appreciate our defensive capabilities. My final international visit before leaving Congress was to inspect our missile defenses against North Korea. I visited Alaska, Japan, Guam, Hawaii and South Korea, and stood on the border with North Korea at the Demilitarized Zone. The good news is we have a multilayered, multirange system of ballistic missile defense technologies. We can potentially intercept North Korean missiles from bases in the United States, from ships in the Pacific and from missile batteries on land in the region. The bad news is the intercepts are not easy and certainly not guaranteed. We have to stop every incoming missile. They only have to penetrate with one. We should increase our investments in improving these technologies.
Second, let’s step back and understand that while North Korea has tested a highly advanced missile, it still lacks the capability of mounting it with a warhead; nor does North Korea have an assurance that it would survive re-entry. This means that Pyongyang’s successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday is a dangerous provocation that requires tough and smart management.
What steps are available? They range from ineffective to potentially catastrophic.
- We can try negotiation. That approach has consistently helped in the short term and failed in the long term.
- We can demand tougher enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions, but can’t count on China to help. It fears a North Korean implosion, a refugee crisis on its border, and an enhanced U.S. missile presence in its neighborhood.
- We can upgrade sanctions to hit North Korean officials more severely and punish China for its trade relationship with Pyongyang. This would again stir the ire of China at a time when its engagement is important.
- Other options are to inflict cyberattacks on North Korea’s missile program, as was done in Iran and elsewhere, expand our naval presence in the region, and announce that the United States will launch a pre-emptive strike on North Korea.
The problem is that as the severity of our response escalates, the risk and the prospects of miscalculation escalate as well. We believe Kim Jung Un’s sole motive is regime and personal survival, and that he would not risk a catastrophic retaliatory strike on his homeland as long as he sees a path to that survival. The United States also believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he would surrender and, if not, our liberation of Iraq would be quick, easy and well received. We were wrong.
The bottom line is this: There are no good options. We need to find the least bad one. That means building a robust alliance, pressing China for progress, and projecting our economic and military capabilities so that North Korea clearly understands the cost it will pay for its destabilizing behavior.
Steve Israel, who served in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2016, now chairs the Global Institute at Long Island University.