Should the U.S. shoot down North Korea’s next missile?

A commentator argues the U.S. must take direct action if it wants to break the North's cycle of petulance.

President Obama and his Japanese and South Korean counterparts say they’re tired of playing the same old game with North Korea — bribing it with food aid or other assistance to curtail its petulance.

Yet Pyongyang is in the midst of another one of its predictable cycles of saber-rattling. Having reneged on its latest promises, it’s threatening to launch a missile sometime this month that will put much of Asia on the edge of its seat. The U.S. and the world have already done so much to isolate and pressure the hermit kingdom. Can anything else work?

Yes, argues Michael Auslin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute — if the North goes ahead with its missile test, the U.S. should shoot it down. Direct action is the best way to stop the bluster and reconciliation merry-go-round, he says, because Washington has already tried to be nice and that didn’t work.

Wrote Auslin:

Diplomatists will be horrified at this [shoot-down] suggestion, but there are sound reasons for taking a stand now, starting with the geopolitics. The White House convinced itself that there was a chance for a new start with Kim Jong Un, even if no one changed at the top of the North Korean regime except its public face. When Washington tried the carrot, it was rewarded with one of the more subtle North Korean bait-and-switches in recent memory.

There is little prospect for any future negotiations under the current administration, but high likelihood for more destabilizing action by the North. Taking military action against an illegal missile test would show Kim and his military leaders that there also is a stick that the West can wield. That alone might cause better behavior. Pyongyang’s overriding concern is survival and the West’s use of military force to defend interests and uphold international norms of behavior—instead of just talking about all this—may make the regime think hard about its long-term interests.

What’s more, shooting down the missile is a proportionate, limited and clearly defensible action. It is neither aggressive nor provocative. It can be justified with reference to U.N. resolutions and long-standing self-defense pacts with Asian allies.

This is not like previous missile tests, where Washington and its allies did nothing. With the missile traversing Japanese islands and American bases and aiming for the waters of Southeast Asia, there is a much higher chance of something going wrong and the missile falling on the territory of other nations.

Shooting it down then also prevents further possible escalation, especially considering the dramatically heightened concern of both South Korea and Japan. For its part, the South remains prepared to respond with overwhelming military force to any North Korean provocation, a legacy of Pyongyang’s sinking of a South Korean naval ship and the shelling of an island in 2010. If the missile aborts over South Korean territory, a war could break out. Seoul has indicated it may shoot down the missile, as has Tokyo—the missile passes over Okinawa and other Japanese territory.

He continues:

Alternately, if Washington and Seoul do nothing right now, the North might be emboldened to further acts in coming days that would unleash a bigger military response by Seoul. In fact, failing to respond in any significant way means the North will become accustomed to launching missiles with unknown payloads over foreign countries, with more chances of accidents occurring. Eventually, there will be a larger public demand, in Asia and the U.S., to eliminate this threat. Asian democracies will be disappointed with Washington’s unwillingness to take their fears seriously.

Auslin concedes that the Obama administration does not appear to be seriously considering downing the North’s missile, despite its promise to deploy Aegis warships and other American assets into the region. He concludes: “But, to break the logjam with North Korea, convince America’s friends of its steadfastness and make clear Washington’s repeated assertions that it acts to uphold international public order, President Obama should avoid the false choice between doing nothing and risking war.”

All of this assumes the North wouldn’t interpret a shoot-down as an aggressive act all on its own, and go into one of its violent frenzies against the South. That could draw a response from the South, which could trigger a larger counter-response from the North, and then you’re off to the races. Even if Kim and his generals kept their cool, China might not be pleased.

Still, Auslin’s points about Japan and South Korea make the situation murkier. Is it a better or worse situation if Tokyo or Seoul shot down the missile on their own? With American warships nearby, the U.S. could show it was backing up its allies without itself being involved. But if the North gets angry about the loss of its missile no matter who blew it up, it might not matter whose flag was on the interceptor.

There’s another possibility here that Auslin apparently did not contemplate: The U.S., South Korea or Japan could swing and miss. Ballistic missile defense has a relatively good record in tests, but it isn’t perfect. If the Navy or its allies fired on the North’s rocket and missed it, that might make the situation even worse — it could embolden Pyongyang to launch again by demonstrating that its nemeses’ countermeasures didn’t work in the real world. It’d also be a big embarrassment for the nation that didn’t score the hit.

Is all of it worth the risk, or could the U.S. and its allies be playing with fire? What do you think?