North Korea’s successful launch of a multistage rocket to put a satellite into orbit has led to uneasiness and agitation not only in East Asia but in the United States.
The official White House response remained low-key, with spokesman Jay Carney merely telling reporters that Pyongyang would face undefined “consequences” for violating a number of UN resolutions. Several military technology experts noted that North Korea was still a long way from building a fleet of ICBMs capable of reaching U.S. territory, much less being able to top such rockets with nuclear warheads. Neither Pyongyang’s missile program nor its nuclear program seems close to that point yet.
Elsewhere in U.S. political and policy circles, though, the alarm was more noticeable. Representative Edward R. Royce (R-CA), the incoming chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, charged that the administration’s North Korea policy was “unimaginative and moribund.” He argued that Washington needed to take a new, more hard-line approach or watch as “the North Korean threat to the region and the U.S. grows.” Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, insisted that the missile test “really brings the threat closer to home.” And the editors at Investor’s Business Daily warned that the North Korean missile was “meant for us and our northern Asian allies.” The correct U.S. response “for what is a growing threat to our shores,” intoned the IBD editorial, “is a military one.”
Such worries are unwarranted. Pyongyang’s successful test of a multi-stage rocket changes little about a direct threat to the American homeland. As an unnamed administration official pointed out, it was merely a successful application (following numerous failures over a nearly two-decade period) of “1950s Sputnik technology.” And it does not alter the reality that the United States deploys thousands of nuclear warheads aboard launchers that are several generations ahead of anything available to North Korea. Pyongyang’s leaders would quite literally have to be suicidal to attack the United States, and while members of North Korea’s political elite are brutal and ruthless, they have never displayed suicidal tendencies.
The reaction in some U.S. circles to the North Korean satellite launch, though, is merely the latest example of a fading confidence in the efficacy of deterrence. There was similar alarmism when China deployed its first aircraft carrier, as though that modest achievement somehow diluted America’s naval superiority. Yet the U.S. Navy has 11 far more capable carriers—not to mention a fleet of deadly submarines, any one of which carries a sufficient quantity of nuclear missiles to devastate China’s cities.
Unwarranted alarmism is even more evident about the prospect that Iran might someday build a small nuclear arsenal. But as in the cases of North Korea’s missile capability and China’s sole aircraft carrier, that development does not significantly increase the danger to the American homeland. The United States would retain a vast military superiority by every relevant measure, and any attack on this country would provoke an obliterating retaliatory strike. And, contrary to the hysteria in some quarters, there is no credible evidence that the Iranian leadership is suicidal.
Developments such as North Korea’s progress on missile technology or Iran’s embryonic nuclear program do not fundamentally alter the bilateral strategic relationship between the United States and either country. Primary deterrence, deterring an attack on the United States itself, remains as effective and credible as ever. Where a change might occur is in the credibility of extended deterrence—Washington’s ability to threaten devastation to an adversary that menaces a U.S. client or ally. That is the real reason why the agitation in East Asia over Pyongyang’s satellite launch has been intense. The leaders and populations of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and other nations in the region worry that U.S. leaders might hesitate to confront a nuclear-armed adversary over a threat confined to their countries.
That is a legitimate concern for them. But the solution is not a propagandistic effort to inflate the threat posed to the United States—much less for U.S. leaders to flirt with the notion of preemptive military action. The logical response is for the East Asian countries to develop robust deterrents—either nuclear or very powerful non-nuclear—of their own, instead of relying on U.S. security guarantees. Their taxpayers may not like the idea of spending the money needed to create more credible deterrents, but in an ever more complex world with an increased number of nuclear-weapons states, it would be a prudent course. Continuing to free-ride on the United States for their security is becoming a less and less viable option.
But in terms of a threat to the United States itself, the latest developments out of North Korea are not cause for alarm. The military and technological gap between America and that decrepit Stalinist state remains a chasm.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books and more than 500 articles and studies on international affairs. He is also a contributing editor to The National Interest.