What if US/Japan Try to Shoot Down a North Korean Missile & They Miss?

Is our BMD better today than it was in 1985?…If they take out MTV though, that’d still be ok


So my prediction that the North Koreans would launch a  test missile on the ‘Day of the Sun’ – that would be Kim Il Sung’s birthday for you imperialist running-dogs yet lacking in proper ideological orientation – was wrong. Hmm. The North Koreans sure are good at keeping us guessing. Maybe they’re dragging this thing out, because they’re enjoying the time in the limelight. My friend Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post, ‘North Korea’s gone viral,’ and they gotta be lovin’ it. When else do we listen to them otherwise? (Here’s a collection of some of the NK humor.)

I still think there will be a missile launch, but I remain pretty positive there won’t be much escalation. I sketched an escalation path a few days ago. But despite being the most likely possible path to a conflict, I still don’t think it is in fact likely. Some comments, both on that post and privately made some good further points why escalation is unlikely.

Kyle Mizokami (Japan Security Watch) observed that the Japanese are unlikely to fire unless the missile is coming right down on a Japanese city, which is effectively a NK declaration of war on Japan. Otherwise, he thinks the Japanese won’t fire, because they are afraid ballistic missile defense (BMD) might not work. They might miss. Dave Kang made a similar observation to me. No one really knows if US/Japanese BMD is effective in the field. It would be a pretty big embarrassment if it didn’t work, not to mentioned signally to NK that they could blackmail with even greater impunity. So we probably wouldn’t fire on the missile, even if it flew right over Japan – just because everyone is nervous it will work out about as well is it did in 1985 (video above).

Another commenter noted that even if BMD was successful, the North Koreans might just overlook that . There would be no need to actually tell the population. However, the non-military elements of the regime might starting questioning the ‘military-first’ policy and the military’s huge share of the budget if they did not respond. Also, information does seep into North Korea a lot more than it did in the past, so it’s possible regular North Koreans would learn that the missile was shot down. And that the former colonizer, Japan, specifically would be the party shooting it down could also be escalatory given the bad blood between Japan and the Koreas. So that is one possible escalation choke-point.

Andrew Logie (Koreanology), suggested that President Park is probably not too reckless. She would probably act to prevent a SK counter-strike – which she has promised though – from spinning out of control. I’m not so confident in that myself; I have the feeling she thinks she is her father’s daughter, the Margaret Thatcher of Korea. But one could imagine USFK flipping out if she just gave a blank check or something to the SK military.

Finally, I think we can all agree that Jeremi Suri should never write on Korean issues ever again. I get enough ‘let’s kick their a—‘ John Bolton-ism on Fox; we really don’t need it on the far more prestigious New York Times op-ed page.

12 thoughts on “What if US/Japan Try to Shoot Down a North Korean Missile & They Miss?

  1. Here’s where all that money governments haven’t spent on intelligence and given to the military will come back to haunt us. Pyongyang can exploit the fact it knows from experience, that its technology is faulty, and send it past. If its performance has improved, the line will be neater, and Japan and the US will have to up their game. Pyongyang always makes its opponents sweat, and earn every quantum of their power. But the outcome is irrelevant because the truth is irrelevant to people. Pyongyang just needs to keep the population engaged and ready to do what the Kim regime wants. As long as the regime is in control, the sheep will fall in line. It will take actual and catastrophic damage to infrastructure to convince North Koreans to stop obeying the only government that has given them anything, including a sense of identity.


  2. I agree that the Suri article is poorly informed. I wonder if my respect for journalists has fallen over the years because I’m older, or because the quality has actually gone down. So many western journalists plainly don’t know what they are talking about in regard to NK.

    I highly approve of internet memes making fun of NK. To me one of the best ways of defanging the regime is to laugh at it, deflating its ridiculous hyperbole and attempts at terror. If I haven’t given this link before, this is something I made: http://www.keneckert.com/ken/experts/experts.htm

    I wonder if you have read this recent article on Christian Science Monitor. The argument is that the Americans should shift their strategy, and rather than deal with NK as a rogue regime they should combat it as they would organized crime. The advice is to go after NK’s money rather than to use military countermeasures (though perhaps the military route is also intended to bankrupt NK by forcing it to match spending, a la Reagan’s handling of the Soviet Union). I’m curious as to what you think of the article’s premise.



    • This reflects my own thinking increasingly too: NK as a gangster state. So how does one go about isolating or containing that? I don’t really know. The USSR and other rouge-state nasties never seemed to be so crime-focused. Maybe we can learn from our response to the Taliban or FARC. Both of them are partially criminal enterprises. But NK of course is an order of magnitude worse.

      A first cut might be very targeted sanctions to try to deprive the ‘court economy’ of the Kims in Pyonyang of its goodies.


      • Two thoughts:

        1. Your last argument looks like the same justifications for the war on drugs or on terror. At what point does toppling the Kim regime become more costly than the problem?

        2. The whole point of this is liberating the North Korean majority from the Kim regime. By taking on the Kims with such narrow focus, we make them more powerful. Maybe if we legitimate them, like making a thief the sheriff, the other thieves will kill them or they will lose their power and the victims will string them up. Maybe we can recognize NK sovereignty, but with liberalization as a condition – opening up the gulags, for one. Then we can co-opt an opposition from what I’m sure is an endless train of applicants. We’d still have to compete with China, but press scrutiny would force the most egregious abuses of power committed against North Koreans to end.

        if the Kims can learn how to stay in power as skillfully and without the more overt means of coercion, as the U.S. does with legalized torture, counter-intuitive spin, and parliamentary tricks, I don’t see what would distinguish them from any decent nation on earth.


  3. I think we can all agree that the refocus on East Asia over the last few years has left the media shorthanded in people with informed opinions.

    Missile defense is all Japan has against North Korea. Due to the pacifist constitution, it is prohibited from having offensive weaponry. Most countries have the option of either A.) waiting until the North Koreans pop one off, and then shooting it down, or B.) destroying the missile before launch. Japan has no Plan B, and that makes it nervous.

    There’s been public talk lately of Japan building offensive missiles to pre-emptively destroy something like a Musudan on the ground. From what I’ve seen of Japanese security politics, this means it is all but a done deal and that development is imminent.

    The legal justification would be that the missile would still be conceptually defensive–that is, it would only be used to attack targets threatening Japan. Call it strategically defensive/tactically offensive. The same justification is now invoked to brand new Japanese marines as “defensive”, since they will be used to retake islands already captured by the enemy.

    Japan is crawling back to “normalization” in response to the potential North Korean threat (and China’s behavior over the Senkakus.) Although I expect Japan to be consistently benign, this will complicate things for Japan’s neighbors long after the Kim regime has fallen.


    • So Japan is considering pre-empting a NK missile launch? Like Suri suggested? Whoa. That sounds hugely risky, no?

      Why doesn’t Japan move faster on ABM? In fact, why aren’t the US, SK, and Japan all working on theater ABM together?


      • Yes, and it’s hugely risky, but it’s the easiest path to proactive defense.

        I think Japan’s ABM system is pretty good–it’s dual-layered, with Aegis destroyers providing national-level BMD defense and Patriots providing point defense. It needs the latest Standard BMD missiles to be totally effective though (to be fair, the U.S. is waiting on this too, for the USN ships based in the Mediterranean–wow, remember that–that are supposed to provide BMD for Europe. Should be available around 2019, barring funding cuts and technical problems.

        I would love to see the U.S. coordinate a standing, regional BMD partnership–like NORAD for East Asia. I don’t know why the U.S. isn’t pushing for it.


      • What about Dave Kang’s point above that BMD is over-rated? You seem a lot more confident now. But earlier on Twitter, I thought you were afraid Japanese BMD would miss. Do you think Japan can in fact shoot down the missile?

        Do you want to write a guest-post here on this? You seem to know a lot about it. People keep asking me if Korea should buy Israel’s Iron Dome, but I hear that it won’t work against NK’s missiles which are larger and faster than those from Israel’s enemies. I’d be curious to know what you think of that too.

        I’m really glad you are commenting here. Thanks.


  4. Pingback: My January Diplomat Essay: Top 5 Northeast Asian Security Stories in 2013 | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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