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North Korea’s missile tests provoked furious international condemnation, and the world’s leading nations are struggling to forge a united response.
How real is Pyongyang’s threat to global security and how should the world’s leading nations respond?
The threat, while significant, is no more today than it was before the test missiles were launched, argued Mark Fitzpatrick, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, and a senior fellow at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, in the Financial Times. He urges the west not to overreact and to seek ways of reaching a missiles deal with Pyongyang.
Mr Fitzpatrick answers your questions below.
You recommend that we do not overreact, but that we talk to North Korea. The US, along with others in that region have been talking and talking and talking. So-called diplomacy is not working and will not work with Kim Il Jong any more than it worked with Hitler in 1936-39. Diplomacy is becoming appeasement. What is your “red line” at which a blockade, severe economic sanctions or even military action should be used?
Edwin Harwood, Needham, Massachusetts
Mark Fitzpatrick: I do not advocate responding to North Korea’s tests by offering bilateral talks right now. But I regret there has not been an ongoing forum for bilateral talks, which could have provided a possible basis for seeking a diplomatic solution to the threat posed by North Korea’s missile program.
It is hard to know what will work with the North Koreans. What we know is that talks in 1993-94 froze their plutonium program, which otherwise would have been able to produce dozens of bombs worth of plutonium by now. To me, that was an example of talks that were at least partially successful. It was not fully successful, of course, because North Korea later violated the agreement by pursuing an alternative enrichment path to nuclear weapons. But were talks worth it to stop the plutonium program? Yes. We also know that US talks with North Korea in 2000 came close to reaching an agreement on stopping the production, testing, deployment and export of ballistic missiles. But President Clinton ran out of time to finalize the deal before he left office and the next Administration did not continue the talks. We do not know if such a deal would have been honoured or for how long, and scepticism is certainly called for. But we do know that in the absence of a deal, North Korea continued to sell deadly missiles to Iran and other customers and to continue to try to develop longer range and more accurate versions.
I hesitate to conjecture red lines in the abstract. I can envision North Korean actions that would warrant very strong reactions: Nuclear weapons testing, export of nuclear material, attacking any neighbour, for example. What reactions are warranted would depend on the circumstances and a weighing of the likely consequences.
With test firing of missiles now an established precedent and their trajectories apparently unpredictable; would Mr Fitzpatrick talk through a scenario of how differently the International community could/would/should respond where a future test firing (inadvertently or not) lands on Japan (instead of flying over it) and actually causes loss of life.
MF: North Korea’s missile test trajectories are unpredictable to the outside (until actually fired, at which point monitoring can start tracking and predicting the path) but not, certainly, to North Korea. In the most recent firings, North Korea targeted its Scud and Nodong missiles so they would fall harmlessly into the ocean. The unpredictability element
is more relevant to the Taepodong long-range missiles, both tests of which have now failed in mid-flight. I think you are asking, what if a Taepodong missile tests with a trajectory over Japan failed while overland, even causing human casualty. That possibility is one of the reasons Japan was properly so incensed about the first Taepodong test in 1998 and this most recent one. That eventuality would require a very strong international response, entirely of a different magnitude from the current situation. If there was evidence a missile test was intended to hit Japan, then that would be an act of war, and may well trigger a proportionate response.
How much do we know about N. Korea’s ability to navigate and stabilize a missile/rocket towards a target? And, do they have a working understanding of modern gyroscopic technology, or was their missile test simply an opportunity to check how far they really have to go until they have a working understanding?
Mike Adams, Los Angeles
MF: The Nodong is an inaccurate missile, with a circular error probable (CEP) of 2-4 km, meaning half of the Nodongs fired would fall outside a circle of that radius. Presumably North Korea has been working on systems to improve the accuracy, but not much is known about this in open sources. More is probably known about Iran, which still does not have effective guidance and control systems for its ballistic missiles. Technical cooperation between Iran and North Korea in this area is one of the areas of concern.
Shouldn’t we be rather reassured by last week’s events. Didn’t the Taepodong-2 largely missile fail, revealing that North Korea’s technology is much less advanced than feared?
Caroline Knight, London
MF: Yes, we can be somewhat reassured by the failure that North Korea has not demonstrated it has a working missile capable of hitting the United States. It does have missiles capable of hitting Japan and South Korea, however, which is why the world should not be complacent. Just as worrisome is that North Korea has been marketing these missiles to any would-be buyer in the world.
How does the situation vis a vis North Korea compare with the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s? Is the risk to global security greater or less?
Mark Sorensen, US
MF: The two situations are of entirely different by several orders of magnitude. The Cuban missiles were nuclear capable and the confrontation between the two superpowers brought the world near the brink of a nuclear war. North Korea’s missiles are probably not nuclear capable - although this is unknown - and there is no prospect of the crisis developing to the point of endangering the US mainland. The tension involving North Korea does have the inherent danger of developing into a regional war that would entail significant loss of life on the Korean Peninsula and possibly the immediate neighbourhood. The current situation is not anywhere near that now, however.
The North Koreans have been developing nuclear capability for some years - why is it only now, when they have fired test missiles - that the leading global powers appear to be taking action together?
MF: The world powers did address the question following the 1998 Taepodong-1 test, but the collective response proved rather tepid: a statement in name of the President of the UN Security Council. I hope the Security Council’s response this time will be stronger and more unified, although so far that is in doubt. At least in 1998, there was a bilateral channel of communication open between North Korea and the United States that led to a moratorium on North Korean testing that lasted until last week. That bilateral channel also came close to producing an agreement by North Korea to stop production, testing, deployment and export of its ballistic missiles.
Is it being too simplistic to suggest that the global powers, who have nuclear weapons, are not in a position to complain when smaller states want a nuclear capability themselves? Great Britain after all looks like it is going to replace Trident.
Adrian Norman, Leeds
MF: Every country is in a position to complain when another country, in this case North Korea, breaks its commitments under the NPT, and threatens regional security and the international nonproliferation regime by seeking a nuclear weapons capability. UK replacement of the Trident would not break any commitment or threaten regional security,
and certainly does not undercut its authority to seek to hold other countries to honor their commitments and international norms. The argument you are reflecting, that nuclear disarmament should also be an international norm, and UK replacement of the Trident would be in violation of its commitments under Article VI of the NPT (or perhaps, better argued, in violation of the sprit of Article VI, which calls for pursuing “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race…”) is probably a discussion for another forum.
Mark Fitzpatrick - Keep calm over North Korea’s tests