Korean Missiles: What's the Hurry?

Korean Missiles: What's the Hurry?

Korean Missiles: What's the Hurry?

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
July 5 2000 5:41 PM

Korean Missiles: What's the Hurry?

In the June 18 Washington Post, Roberto Suro and Thomas E. Ricks pointed out that a Pentagon-appointed panel of experts had voiced "strong skepticism that [an anti-missile] system will be operating successfully by 2005, the deadline set by Congress and the White House." The 2005 deadline is important because that's the year North Korea will supposedly be able to hit U.S. soil with a missile. As Elaine Sciolino and Steven Lee Myers put it in the July 5 New York Times, "The Pentagon schedule to build a missile defense is entirely driven [italics Chatterbox's] by the belief that North Korea will have a long-range missile by 2005." If the schedule is entirely driven by North Korea's assumed missile capabilities in 2005, and if that schedule probably can't be met, why is the United States rushing to abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and begin work on an anti-missile defense? This was a question Chatterbox raised in an earlier item.

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What Chatterbox neglected to anticipate was a new doctrine--one dictating that North Korea, while still bent on vaporizing Pismo Beach, would lack the ability to do so by 2005. Sure enough, the Times reports that "some officials, including experts on Korea," now say that "North Korea's suspension of its missile tests in the fall" will cause it to blow the 2005 deadline. The fact that these officials are also, according to the Times, saying that North Korea may make peace with South Korea before 2005 suggests that they find the whole "rogue state" (whoops, make that "state of concern") rationale to be bogus--that is, that they oppose building the anti-missile system. But it's also possible that these officials favor building the anti-missile system and that they're cleverly pooh-poohing the North Koreans' chances of sending an ICBM to the United States by 2005 in order to justify building an anti-missile system that itselfwon't be operational until after 2005!

Let's use some rudimentary game theory to consider how assumptions about the two 2005 deadlines--one for the U.S. anti-missile system, the other for North Korean capability to hit U.S. soil--ricochet off one another:

  • 1) U.S. anti-missile system will be operational and effective. 2.) North Korea's missiles will be operational and effective. 3.) Ergo, U.S. should rush to build its anti-missile system.
  • 1) U.S. anti-missile system won't be operational and effective. 2.) North Korea's missiles will be operational and effective. 3.) Ergo, U.S. shouldn't rush to build its anti-missile system.
  • 1) U.S. anti-missile system won't be operational and effective. 2.) North Korea's missiles won't be operational and effective. 3.) Ergo, U.S. shouldn't rush to build its anti-missile system.
  • 1) U.S. anti-missile system will be operational and effective. 2.) North Korea's missiles won't be operational and effective. 3.) Ergo, U.S. shouldn't rush to build its anti-missile system. 

Observe that the only scenario that dictates rushing to build a U.S. anti-missile system is the single most implausible one--that both the U.S. and North Korea will meet the 2005 deadline.

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Why, then, is it all but a foregone conclusion that the Clinton administration will respond to a scheduled July 7 anti-missile-system test (which, Mark Thompson notes in the July 10 Time magazine, will be ludicrously rigged) by pressing ahead with deployment? In her new book, Way Out There in the Blue, Frances FitzGerald suggests that a key Clinton administration shift in favor of supporting anti-missile defense, which occurred in January 1999, resulted from the House vote to impeach Clinton the month before. (The Senate acquitted Feb. 12.) In other words, it may be that the only projectile the Clinton anti-missile defense plan ever truly intended to deflect--and, then, only metaphorically--was the one that soiled Monica Lewinsky's blue cocktail dress.