Peter Huessy is a senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.
When the South Korean government collected and analyzed the debris from North Korea's mid-December launch of a rocket into space, it made two new—and disturbing—discoveries. The first was that, while the rocket technology used by Pyongyang was partly Chinese in origin, it appeared to have been largely "home grown." The second was that the range of the rocket fired by the North was greater than originally believed, and perhaps as much as 6,000 miles in distance.
These revelations, in turn, have helped turn conventional wisdom regarding North Korea's strategic capabilities on its ear. For one thing, North Korea now appears to be nearly self sufficient in missile technology, despite having received inputs from external sources (like China) in the past. That means that past sanctions aimed at inhibiting the North Korea's rocket forces were less successful than previously believed—and future ones will be even less so. For another, the homeland of the United States may for the first time be within reach from North Korea's existing missile arsenal—a development once believed to still be years away.
The implications for U.S. security policy are profound. North Korea's strategic motivations are notoriously opaque, and it is unclear whether it would seriously contemplate actually firing a rocket at the United States, as it has long threatened to do, or simply using its new capabilities for blackmail or coercion in a crisis over the Korean peninsula. What is evident is that America must plan for both eventualities.
Here, there is at least some good news. Defense legislation recently passed by Congress and signed into law just weeks ago by the White House identifies the U.S. missile defense systems currently deployed in Alaska and California as being adequate to defend against the current or emerging missile threat from Pyongyang. Even so, the existing system of 30 interceptors deployed on the U.S. west coast is based on older technology that needs to be updated and improved to keep pace with North Korean developments. Unfortunately, there has been a reluctance on the part of policymakers in Washington to make serious additional investments to these capabilities that would speed development and deployment.
Less encouraging is the state of America's alliances in Asia. Our extended nuclear deterrent has long provided an umbrella over the Republic of Korea, and Japan and others U.S. allies in the region. That function needs to be reaffirmed and strengthened in light of North Korea's strategic advances. Policy in Washington, however, is headed in the opposite direction; discussions of reductions in, even the outright elimination of, U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities have served to worry our allies, and do so to the point of engendering an open debate among countries in the region regarding the development of their own respective nuclear deterrents.
The latest revelations concerning North Korea's ballistic missile advances—and news this week of the North Korea's latest nuclear test—should remind policymakers in Washington of two enduring realities: that robust defenses are needed to protect the U.S. homeland, American allies, and our deployed forces from the threat of devastating ballistic missile attack, and that a robust U.S. nuclear arsenal serves as a critical component of America's alliance structure abroad, as well as a hedge against further proliferation. We forget these facts at our peril.