Will this month's missile launch by North Korea be the straw that breaks the camel's back? Pyongyang's blatant abrogation of the spirit of its Feb. 29 agreement with the Obama administration and flouting of United Nations resolutions banning missile launches has enraged the White House and energized both Seoul and Tokyo. Disguising the test as a "satellite launch" convinced no one, and talk is now about how to punish new leader Kim Jong Eun.
This time, the U.S., along with its allies South Korea and Japan, should consider blowing the North's missile out of the sky. Doing so won't cause war, and it may be the surest way to preserve peace. It would send a message far more clearly than any future negotiations could, and might lead to a more durable political settlement in Northeast Asia.
Diplomatists will be horrified at this suggestion, but there are sound reasons for taking a stand now, starting with the geopolitics. The White House convinced itself that there was a chance for a new start with Kim Jong Eun, even if no one changed at the top of the North Korean regime except its public face. When Washington tried the carrot, it was rewarded with one of the more subtle North Korean bait-and-switches in recent memory.
There is little prospect for any future negotiations under the current administration, but high likelihood for more destabilizing action by the North. Taking military action against an illegal missile test would show Kim and his military leaders that there also is a stick that the West can wield. That alone might cause better behavior. Pyongyang's overriding concern is survival and the West's use of military force to defend interests and uphold international norms of behavior—instead of just talking about all this—may make the regime think hard about its long-term interests.
What's more, shooting down the missile is a proportionate, limited and clearly defensible action. It is neither aggressive nor provocative. It can be justified with reference to U.N. resolutions and long-standing self-defense pacts with Asian allies.
This is not like previous missile tests, where Washington and its allies did nothing. With the missile traversing Japanese islands and American bases and aiming for the waters of Southeast Asia, there is a much higher chance of something going wrong and the missile falling on the territory of other nations.
Shooting it down then also prevents further possible escalation, especially considering the dramatically heightened concern of both South Korea and Japan. For its part, the South remains prepared to respond with overwhelming military force to any North Korean provocation, a legacy of Pyongyang's sinking of a South Korean naval ship and the shelling of an island in 2010. If the missile aborts over South Korean territory, a war could break out. Seoul has indicated it may shoot down the missile, as has Tokyo—the missile passes over Okinawa and other Japanese territory.
Instead of South Korea and Japan going it alone, it would be far preferable for Washington to coordinate with its allies, lend technical assistance and take multilateral action. Such an approach would allay any fears both countries have about the U.S. commitment to their security and would open up opportunities for new security relations between Tokyo and Seoul. Not least, it also would show China that the allies have no more patience for its games of "will we or won't we" on pressuring Pyongyang to act peacefully.
Alternately, if Washington and Seoul do nothing right now, the North might be emboldened to further acts in coming days that would unleash a bigger military response by Seoul. In fact, failing to respond in any significant way means the North will become accustomed to launching missiles with unknown payloads over foreign countries, with more chances of accidents occurring. Eventually, there will be a larger public demand, in Asia and the U.S., to eliminate this threat. Asian democracies will be disappointed with Washington's unwillingness to take their fears seriously.
Despite the unprecedented threat, there is no indication that the White House is thinking about shooting down the missile. The Pentagon is doing the same things it did last time the North shot off ballistic missiles in 2009: It's moving some ships to the area, sending a radar platform into Asian waters and assuring our friends that we stand by them.
This time, it needs to do more. The White House is right that we face a new era with North Korea. But, to break the logjam with North Korea, convince America's friends of its steadfastness and make clear Washington's repeated assertions that it acts to uphold international public order, President Obama should avoid the false choice between doing nothing and risking war.