North Korean state media yesterday released details on its latest missile systems: the three-stage Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) Hwasong-13 and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Pukguksong-3. The release is part of a broader, unusually well-publicized North Korean escalation under Kim Jong-un, aimed at intimidating the United States with its growing missile capabilities.
North Korean provocations have been emboldened by a U.S. policy that has remained essentially unchanged since Pyongyang began testing long-range missiles in 2006. Both the Bush and Obama administrations relied principally on sanctions and diplomatic pressure to constrain North Korea’s missile programs.
These efforts did little to undercut North Korea’s strategic calculus. Pyongyang believes that sanctions and diplomatic pressure are a tolerable price to pay given the long-term rewards that its missile programs could yield. Successive U.S. administrations have reiterated American commitments to its allies, but Pyongyang calculates that the United States would not ultimately abide by its security guarantees if North Korea could hold American cities hostage.
In the meantime, Pyongyang takes comfort in the fact that the United States prefers to kick the can down the road — “strategic patience” as the Obama administration called it — if the alternative is a preemptive military strike against North Korea’s missile programs. While leaving “all options on the table” Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently acknowledged that the fallout of an attack, which could trigger war on the Korean peninsula, would be “catastrophic.”
Particularly for a regime as financially bankrupt as the North, investments in advanced missile programs would be a riskier proposition were the United States to expand its missile defense capabilities. Cuts to U.S. missile defense programs under the Obama administration left the United States without a reliable capability to defend the continental United States against North Korean ICBMs. The current Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system provides only limited coverage, as it does not have enough defensive interceptors to thwart an incoming North Korean missile.
According to Keith Payne of the National Institute for Public Policy, however, complementing GMD defenses with additional, relatively inexpensive layers of protection for the West Coast and Hawaii offer “the most effective and efficient protection against missile threats.” This assessment is supported by the Missile Defense Agency’s announcement earlier this year that the United States had “successfully intercepted” an ICBM in its first ground-based intercept system test. The test — what Vice Admiral Jim Syring calls a “critical milestone” — belies long-standing doubts about the technological feasibility of ground-based defenses.
All of this is terrifying to North Korea. As the University of Maryland’s Naoko Aoki found in a recent paper, Pyongyang views U.S. missile systems as a “serious threat” that could undermine North Korea’s leverage and shift the East Asian balance of power decisively toward the United States and its allies. Indeed, missile defense cooperation is already facilitating closer ties between the United States, Japan, and, South Korea, which, Congressional Research Service analysts predict, could be a “major force multiplier for the United States” in the coming years.
After initially proposing further cuts in missile defense, President Trump changed course in light of the North Korean threat and promised an additional “billions of dollars.” Committees in both the House and Senate have authorized spending increases on missile defense, but a final decision on missile defense funding is pending a Pentagon review of its ballistic missile defense programs.
Against the backdrop of a growing North Korean threat — and Washington’s decade-long failure to confront it — a build-up of ground-based missile defense systems is a necessary corrective.