Preemptive Strike On North Korea Is ‘Ill-Conceived’ and ‘Factually-Flimsy’

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry is one of America’s great national defense assets. So it is difficult to understand his lapse in judgment in proposing, with Harvard’s Ash Carter, to start a war with North Korea. Perhaps it is an attempt to position themselves to the right of President Bush, but their plan is ill-conceived, factually flimsy, and feeds directly into the crisis atmosphere that dictator Kim Jong-Il wants to create. Their June 22 Washington Post op-ed, commits five basic errors:

1. They exaggerate the threat. Calling North Korea’s test launch an “intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead on U.S. soil” is a huge analytical leap unsupported by any evidence. The last time North Korea fired a long-range missile was in 1998, it went about 1300 kilometers and failed to put its tiny payload into orbit.

2. They adopt the Bush administration’s deeply flawed preventive war strategy. The view that we have to go to war before “the threat has matured” is precisely what sent us into Iraq. The 1998 test was not an imminent threat and this one is no different — certainly not the “race to threaten this country” that the authors suggest.

3. They justify the attack on flimsy intelligence. The very first sentence of the op-ed – “North Korean technicians are reportedly in the final stages of fueling a long-range ballistic missile” — is in error. South Korean intelligence officials, who were the first to report the missile fueling, have now rejected the reports.

4. There is little calculation of the next move. Perry and Carter assume that once the U.S. attacked North Korea, Kim Jung-Il will do nothing. This assumption is convenient, but unsupported. Do the authors really think that Kim can afford to lose massive amounts of face and still maintain his grip on the military? What if he launches a missile at a U.S. facility in South Korea in a tit-for-tat exchange? Never count on winning a chess game with one bold move.

5. Finally, this whole approach plays directly into Kim Jung-Il’s hands. This test is aimed at increasing North Korea’s bargaining leverage, as shown by North Korea’s simultaneous calls for one-on-one discussions with the United States in order to resolve issues over the missile launch. Exaggerating its importance does just what Kim wants: makes him appear a more dangerous foe than he is. It also helps conservatives who have hyped the North Korean missile threat for years as a way to pour money into the anti-missile sink-hole.

Rather than the pre-emptive strike path suggested by Perry and Carter, the wisest course is to join with our allies in opposing any new missile tests, insist that North Korea return to the six-party talks, and indicate that if they do they will find a United States willing to negotiate a final solution to end these programs, as former US ambassador Jack Pritchard recommends. Kim Jung-Il is a petty dictator that we should be perfectly capable of maneuvering into surrender. We should not let his cheap stunts terrify us into playing his pathetic game.

Joseph Cirincione