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Concerns Mount over North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Testing

June 22, 2006 at 6:20 PM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: In 1998, North Korea shocked the world by testing a long-range ballistic missile. It soared over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.

The following year, the government of Kim Jong Il agreed to a missile testing moratorium. But now, U.S. spy satellites have observed intensive pre-launch activity at a missile base on North Korea’s east coast.

The intelligence has sparked concern that North Korea is preparing to test a longer-range Taepodong II missile. When fully developed, it could strike the continental United States with nuclear warheads.

On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned North Korea not to go ahead.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. Secretary of State: It would be a very serious matter and, indeed, a provocative act should North Korea decide to launch that missile. We will, obviously, consult on next steps, but I can assure everyone that it would be taken with utmost seriousness.

MARGARET WARNER: The threat of a North Korean missile test was a top issue in Austria yesterday, when President Bush met European Union leaders.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: It should make people nervous when non-transparent regimes that have announced that they’ve got nuclear warheads fire missiles.

MARGARET WARNER: In New York yesterday, a North Korean diplomat at the United Nations suggested the issue could be resolved through direct talks with the United States.

But Washington’s U.N. ambassador rejected that idea. The Bush administration is insisting that North Korea return to the six-party talks on its nuclear program, which Pyongyang boycotted last September.

The U.S. reportedly has activated some sea- and land-based elements of its fledgling missile defense system. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked today if the U.S. would use it.

JOURNALIST: Under what circumstances would the United States use its missile defense system to try to shoot down a North Korean missile launch?

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. Secretary of Defense: At the president’s direction. And the president would make a decision with respect to the nature of launch, whether it was threatening to the territory of the United States or not, and the likely threat that it would pose.

JOURNALIST: And just to follow up, what’s your level of concern about the potential of this launch?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, it’s clear that all of the intelligence suggests they’ve been making preparations for a launch of a missile from the area of Taepodong for some days now. There’s a lot we know and a lot we don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, former Defense Secretary William Perry, who negotiated the North Korea missile-testing moratorium in 1999, offered a provocative alternative.

In a Washington Post op-ed piece, co-authored with former Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, he suggested a pre-emptive strike, stating, “If North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.”

Elsewhere, in South Korea, where officials have downplayed the threat of a missile launch, 1,000 demonstrators staged a rally denouncing Pyongyang’s apparent plans to test.

Destroying the technology

Michael Green
Former National Security Council Staff
The proposal to strike is technically possible. The North Koreans are building this so we can see it, after all. And it would undoubtedly deny them certain data they could gain if it were a successful test.

MARGARET WARNER: So what should the United States do? Is a pre-emptive strike the way to go? To debate that, we turn to former Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who did co-author today's piece advocating such a strike. He served under Secretary Perry in the Clinton administration and now teaches at Harvard University.

And Michael Green, who was senior director for Asian affairs on President Bush's National Security Council staff during 2004 and 2005, he's now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and also teaches at Georgetown University.

And welcome to you, both.

So, Ashton Carter, why are you calling for a pre-emptive strike against this missile launch site?

ASHTON CARTER, Former Assistant Secretary of Defense: Well, just to be clear, what we're saying is that, if North Korea proceeds to erect this missile, fill it with fuel, and, so to speak, begin the countdown to launch, that the United States should destroy that missile on the launch pad. And we should say now that we have that intention.

This is not going to be an attack on North Korea as a whole, an attack solely on this missile launch site. And the North Koreans still have time to do the right thing, which is take that missile back to the warehouse and not prepare it for launch.

But we can't sit by and allow them to perfect the technology to deliver to our country the nuclear weapons that we've already let them accumulate over the last few years. So, at some point, we need to draw the line, and this seemed to the former secretary of defense, Bill Perry, and me the time and the place to draw that line.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that the Taepodong missile capability they have now is not a direct threat to the United States, in other words, what they would launch, but that...

ASHTON CARTER: No one...

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.

ASHTON CARTER: No one believes, Margaret -- I'm sorry to interrupt -- but to anticipate your question, no one believes that this particular missile is intended to attack us. It is a test missile.

But they're testing it in order to achieve the capability to build with confidence a number of missiles that would go with a number of nuclear warheads they've obtained in the last few years, and that's exactly the -- that's the darkest kind of threat our country can face.

And if we can take actions to prevent them from getting that capability, and those actions are within our power, and are proportional, at least proportional to the provocation, we should be prepared to take that action, and that's what we recommended.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Green, your thought on that?

MICHAEL GREEN, Senior Adviser, Center for Strategic and International Studies: Well, here you have a former Clinton administration official advocating a pre-emptive military strike and a former Bush administration official advocating multilateral diplomacy. It shows how convoluted sometimes North Korea can be.

I think the proposal to strike is technically possible. The North Koreans are building this so we can see it, after all. And it would undoubtedly deny them certain data they could gain if it were a successful test.

But I think it would drive the South Koreans away from us. I think we'd have a hard time with China and even with Japan.

And I think a much better approach is to take advantage of what is a very dumb decision strategically by the North Koreans to consolidate further cooperation among the other parties in the six-party talks, to do something we haven't done yet -- we have done it with Iran; we haven't done it with North Korea -- and that is tell them there's a deadline and there will be consequences if you don't follow through on the pledges you've made, because they did promise last September to dismantle all of their nuclear weapons.

So I think, if we actually play this right, it's going to make the diplomacy more effective. I fear a military strike would drive all the parties apart and make it more difficult.

Re-starting the politics game

Ashton Carter
Former Pentagon Official
We find ourselves at a point now where there is risk for sure in the action that we've recommended. I hope it's not necessary to take that action, but the North Koreans are going to be the ones who make that decision.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think that North Korea is doing this now? As you said, they've really made no attempt to hide this. U.S. spy satellites have been able to see it. And then what does that tell you about whether they're open to any kind of diplomatic approach?

MICHAEL GREEN: Well, they don't make much for export in North Korea, counterfeit money, drugs, refugees, mushrooms and tension. And they don't like where they are right now, strategically.

I think they have buyers' remorse over the September commitments they made to give up the nuclear programs. I think they're disappointed in how little cash they've gotten from South Korea and Japan in this process. And I think they're, frankly, quite worried about how effective the U.S. and other governments have been at freezing bank accounts they use to launder their money from the counterfeit money and drug sales.

So they don't look at the trajectory they're on right now and get a good feeling about it, I suppose. And so they're, in effect, trying to throw the whole chessboard in the air and see if they can start over and get a better deal for themselves. And, obviously, we shouldn't give it to them.

MARGARET WARNER: Ash Carter, do you see an opening for negotiations here or for setting a date and threatening further sanctions, further isolation, as an alternative to the rather drastic step of striking?

ASHTON CARTER: Well, I think that North Korea, if it's at all possible to talk them out of their missile and nuclear programs, there needs to be some point at which we say, "Enough is enough."

Now, the six-party talks, which I support, have been going on now for several years and have produced exactly nothing. So it's difficult to argue that the course we're on is going to lead to restraint on the part of the North Koreans or that we have some insight into what they're doing.

I think that we find ourselves at a point now where there is risk for sure in the action that we've recommended. I hope it's not necessary to take that action, but the North Koreans are going to be the ones who make that decision.

But there's risk in the other course, which is sitting back and letting North Korea continue to run amok, and that's what's happened so far during the six-party talks.

The legal high-ground

Ashton Carter
Former Pentagon Official
They need to understand that we can't just sit back and allow a country like that to accumulate, first, nuclear weapons in the last few years, and now ballistic missiles.

MARGARET WARNER: The risk, of course, Michael Green, is that North Korea would respond by taking some kind of military action against South Korea. That's always been the fear. Do you think that's possible?

MICHAEL GREEN: It's possible. I think Ashton and Secretary Perry make a case that they might decide it's not worth it. But whether they attack or not, I think the South Korean public reaction would be extremely negative because their feeling would be we took their security at risk to stop a missile that's a test missile.

I agree completely with Ash, though, that we do need to put down some markers, and it's encouraging that, over the past 48 hours, not just Japan, where you'd expect it, but also China, Russia, countries around the world are telling the North Koreans publicly that they'd be making a mistake to do this, which suggests for countries like China that privately they're giving them a much sterner message than that.

MARGARET WARNER: You raised the irony of a former Bush official calling for talks and a former Clinton official calling for pre-emptive strike. As an international legal matter, does the U.S. have standing to do this or would this be considered a unilateral act of war?

MICHAEL GREEN: It's an interesting question. If North Korea announces this is a space vehicle and they notify all the appropriate international agencies, they can possibly make the case legally that they're in the right.

But I think their statements already that they have a nuclear deterrent, that they're demonstrating it, make it very clear this is a bellicose action. This is not like a missile test that any other country does; this is a clearly hostile act.

And I think international opinion, you know, would be behind a stern response. I just don't think that we could hold together our coalition if the response were to use military force at this point.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ash Carter, do you think it's on firm legal ground? I know you're advocating it, but do you think, as a matter of international law?

ASHTON CARTER: Well, it is the case that, in this action, we would be striking at a potential aggressor before they had the opportunity to undertake aggression. That, sadly, is the kind of action you need to take seriously when you're facing weapons of mass destruction.

The Clinton administration was a long time ago, but I remember in that period also -- and Secretary Perry was then secretary of defense -- he had me draw up a strike plan for the Yongbyon nuclear site. That would have been a much more extensive attack than this, and we made it known to the North Koreans that we had a plan of that kind.

They need to understand that we can't just sit back and allow a country like that to accumulate, first, nuclear weapons in the last few years, and now ballistic missiles.

I hope they climb down from this perch and prevent us from having to take this action, but they need to know -- and, by the way, the South Koreans need to know -- that we need to protect ourselves.

We've stood by the South Koreans for five decades now, as the North Koreans have threatened their country. Now, North Korea is accumulating the wherewithal to threaten us, and I think the South Koreans just have to understand that we need to protect ourselves.

An untested defense

Michael Green
Former National Security Council Staff
The [missile defense] systems have proven effective in tests, but we're still only in the testing phase. They haven't been fully made operational, so there's some risk you could shoot and we miss. So it's not without complications.

MARGARET WARNER: Michael Green, let's talk about briefly, before we go, the question that was raised to Secretary Rumsfeld today, which is, "What about the U.S. missile defense system?"

Now, he did say -- he said, "Well, not all the pieces are in place." And he talked about it having a modest capability. Is the U.S. even capable of shooting down such a missile launch once it's in air? In other words, at least not on the launch pad. And do you think that's a reasonable alternative?

MICHAEL GREEN: It's an alternative. It also has some complications. It will depend -- we don't know exactly what the range of this missile is. So it will depend on the range. It will have to come within range of the missile defense systems.

The systems have proven effective in tests, but we're still only in the testing phase. They haven't been fully made operational, so there's some risk you could shoot and we miss. So it's not without complications.

It is one more alternative. It's one, frankly, that would have a lot more support among our friends and allies, if the administration chose to take it.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Mr. Carter, do you think it's a good alternative?

ASHTON CARTER: In addition to the downside that Mike Green correctly points out, which is that we might miss, in which case whatever deterrent value our defense has would be undermined, there's another problem, which is that, by the time a defensive system like that makes an intercept, the launch is over.

And what the North Koreans are trying to do is collect data on whether this missile works or not, so it doesn't deny them the purpose of their test to intercept the payload after the missile has been launched. That doesn't defeat the purpose of their test. So that's another downside to using the unproven ABM system.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

MICHAEL GREEN: Something to keep in mind is that this is a very rudimentary system and the North Koreans may not be entirely confident it will work either and may be making some other calculations, so we'll see what they do.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Michael Green, Ashton Carter, thank you, both.

ASHTON CARTER: Good to be with you.