Who's Celebrating the North Korean Test?

At least one western constituency is celebrating Kim Jong-il's nuclear test - the folks who toil in the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the beltway publicists who promote their cause in the public square.

The morning after the test, David Frum, the former Bush speech writer and current fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, was in the New York Times[i]advocating a central role for accelerated deployment of ballistic missile defence (BMD) in the panoply of threats and punishments that he wants visited on North Korea and China. The next day Frank Gaffney Jr., another Washington neo-conservative and former official in Ronald Reagan's Pentagon, was in the Globe and Mail[ii]urging the US to "greatly ramp up [its] effort to deploy the sort of effective anti-missile defences first sought by Mr. Reagan" (a much more far-reaching, and fantastical, plan than the current Pentagon program).

From its earliest days the MDA has depended heavily on cooperation from Kim Jong-il and his generals in preserving the North Korean threat - a primary rationale offered by BMD's Congressional advocates. And of course, the North Koreans are nothing if not accommodating. The North Korean long-range missile test last June and the nuclear warhead test on October 9, despite the outright failure of the former and the ambiguous results of the latter, have injected new energy into a program that was languishing due to a lack of purpose and attention from a White House and Congress with other things on their minds.

The timing of Mr. Kim's gift to the BMD lobby in Canada could also not have been better. Just days before the Korean nuclear test, the Senate Defence Committee recommended, in a report it entitled "Managing Turmoil,"[iii] that Canada "enter into discussions with the US Government with the aim of participating in the Ballistic Missile Defence program." Interestingly, the Committee made no reference to North Korea in its supporting argument, arguing instead that participation would cost nothing and it might even work.

The Senate argued for BMD because "it is not offensive and not a threat to any other nation." Frum argued for it because it is highly threatening - particularly to Chinese interests, and punishment of China was very high on his strategic to do list (he also advocated for Japan to go nuclear for the same reason).

Kim Jong-il and North American BMD advocates may find common cause for the moment, but in the end, it is likely that more prudent minds will prevail. Serious strategists recognize that any possible protection that BMD would offer from a North Korean missile would be immediately undercut by a manifold increase in the Chinese nuclear threat.

The politics of BMD will ultimately be fought out between Washington's beltway mythmakers and the American taxpayers, and sooner or later, reality will raise its expensive head. As they say, the Americans usually end up doing the right thing, once all the other options have been exhausted. In this case, the other options involve great cost and no security payoff. And if the present Korean crisis were to be properly handled, the BMD publicists could end up losing a valued ally.

[i] David Frum, "Mutually Assured Disruption," The New York Times, October 10, 2006.

[ii] Frank Gaffney Jr., "Dealing decisively with the enemy," The Globe and Mail, October 11, 2006.

[iii] Available at: http://www.parl.gc.ca/39/1/parlbus/commbus/senate/com-e/defe-e/rep-e/RepOct06-e.pdf.

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