N Korea launch increases focus on US options

Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom –
North Korea’s firing of a ballistic missile over Japan could increase pressure on Washington to consider shooting down future test launches, although there is no guarantee of success and US officials are wary of a dangerous escalation with Pyongyang.
More attention is likely to focus on the prospects for intercepting a missile in flight after North Korea on Tuesday conducted one of its boldest missile tests in years, one government official said.
While President Donald Trump has vowed that “all options are on the table”, there has been no sign of any quick policy shift in Washington towards direct US military action.
But Pyongyang’s launch of an intermediate-range Hwasong-12 missile over Japan’s northern Hokkaido island underscored how Trump’s tough rhetoric has done little to deter North Korea’s leader.
“Kim Jong Un has chosen to thumb his nose at the Americans and Japanese by conducting this test,” said David Shear, former US assistant secretary of defence for East Asia.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has already pledged that the military would shoot down any missile it deemed a danger to US or allied territory.
What is unclear is whether Washington would be prepared to use its multi-layered missile defence systems to intercept a missile like the one that overflew Japan but never directly threatened its territory.
Doing so would essentially be a US show of force rather than an act of self-defence.
“I would think that in government deliberations that would likely be one of the options out on the table,” Shear said.
Some analysts say there is a danger that North Korea would see it as an act of war and retaliate militarily with potentially devastating consequences for South Korea and Japan.
China, North Korea’s neighbour and main trading partner, would also likely oppose such a direct US military response.
Experts say there is no guarantee that US missile defence systems based in Guam and South Korea would hit their target despite recent successful tests.
A failed attempt would be an embarrassment to the United States and could embolden North Korea.
Mattis this month expressed confidence the US military could intercept a missile fired by North Korea if it was headed to Guam, after North Korea said it was developing a plan to launch four intermediate range missiles to land near the US territory.
If North Korea fired at the United States, the situation could quickly escalate to war, Mattis said.
Not everyone is convinced the US military can defend against North Korea’s growing missile capability.
Some experts caution that US missile defences are now geared to shooting down one, or perhaps a small number, of incoming missiles. If North Korea’s technology and production keep advancing, US defences could be overwhelmed.
“If a shootdown fails, it would be embarrassing, though not terribly surprising,” said Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the 38 North think-tank in Washington.
US military and intelligence officials warn North Korea could unleash a devastating barrage of missiles and artillery on Seoul and US bases in South Korea in response to any military attack.
Targeting of a North Korean missile in flight that did not endanger the United States or its allies could also raise legal questions. UN Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang’s ballistic missile programmes do not explicitly authorise such actions.
Japan also faces questions over the legality of shooting down missiles in its airspace but not aimed at Japan. Under legislation passed in 2015, Tokyo can exercise a limited right of collective self-defence, or militarily aiding an ally under attack, if it judges the threat to Japan as “existential”. — Reuters