What to Do About North Korean Missile Test?

James Robbins has an interesting idea of how the U.S. could respond to the promised DPRK test of their long range Taepodong-2 missile:

If the North Koreans follow tradition, they will test their new long range missile by firing it through the air space of another country, probably Japan, maybe the U.S. too if they can reach Alaska. Sounds like a great opportunity to test our missile -defense technology. North Korea has no right to test weapons over other countries, so they won’t have a leg to stand on legally. And it would be a great statement of our resolve to stand up to their aggressive behavior. Finally, it would be a high-profile way to demonstrate the effectiveness of our missile-defense systems.

Kevin Drum is intrigued by the idea as is Andrew Olmstead, who adds,

It would be as close to a real-world conditions test as we’re likely to get, it would allow us to see what we’re getting for our money, and advocates of missile defense could use the North Korean test as fodder to maintain support for the program. Even if it failed, that would be a prime opportunity to demagogue the issue and argue that we need to focus more heavily on missile defense because the next missile might not be a test.

I think “Even if” is a rather generous qualifier to “it failed.” I’d go with “Its almost certain failure….” Still, he’s right about the propaganda value in the event of a neutral failure.

Such a move could backfire horribly, however. Both a “successful” and a failed attempt to shoot down the DPRK missile could wind up killing people. One only has to remember back to the 1991 Gulf War, when American Patriot missiles shot down Iraqi scuds but quite likely killed many more people than saved by sending huge pieces of shrapnel into innocent population centers. It’s far from inconceivable that could happen in this case. And, of course, missile tests often reveal that the missile is not ready for prime time, as demonstrated by the missile not hitting its intended target. Presumably, this threat could be substantially mitigated by targetting the Korean missile while it’s still over the ocean. It could not be totally eliminated, however.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Personally, I would do a “secret” test.

    If it failed, keep it secret.

    If it succeeded, decide to either announce it or keep quiet and let the NK wonder what happened to their missile.

    I don’t see much value in a public test. It would allow the NK a chance to gather data on our anti-missile technology.

    This reminds me of the story about a missile launch that was done in the 60’s. There were supposed to be three missiles launched though that was not known by the press covering the test. After the second missile launched there was a delay. Then the quick thinking lieutenant escorting the press turned to the press corps and announced that this concluded the demonstration and if they will get on the bus, he will take them to a reception for refreshments and they can ask questions there. It wasn’t until years later that the failure to launch of the third missile became known.

  2. Herb says:

    What about the Boeing 747 outfitted with the lases technology to blast a missile out of the sky ?

    If that worked, NK would be scratching their heads.

  3. Michael says:

    Since there is very little chance of a successful missile intercept, I think the government would be stupid to try. It would only lead to embarrassment for the US, and a strong propaganda point for the DPRK. The Airborne Laser is also just a project in development, and not ready to intercept an actual missile.

    If the US is truly worried about what a successful DPRK missile launch could mean, their best option is to use a stealth UAV to take out the missile sometime between fueling and launch (I’m assuming we know where it is). This would allow us to play it off as an engineering accident to avoid raising tensions, while at the same time sending the strong message that we can incapacitate them at any time (because nobody in the DPRK would believe it was an accident).

  4. From what I am reading, the US government is “making the 11 anti-ballistic missiles operational”, but not confirming if they will shoot.

    As far as the airborne laser, I believe it has concluded its ground trials, but the first airborne trial won’t be until this Fall. It would have the advantage of being able to shoot the missile down while still over NK territory.

  5. floyd says:

    if they use north korea for missle testing, should we?