Aug. 29, 2017
Heather Hurlburt wrote for New York Magazine about how to interpret North Korea's missile flight over Japan.
Last night’s missile flight over Japan, as best we know now, broke no new technical ground. It changes nothing about the basic calculus we face: The North has a number of nuclear warheads and missile technology which can hit our troops and our allies right now. If they cannot reliably deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental U.S. currently, they will be able to soon.
The message the North seems to have sought to deliver? North Korea intends to be an aggressive nuclear actor in Northeast Asia. The message we should take? Actions like this make the risk of misperception and escalation huge.
Several aspects of this launch were intended to send a message to the U.S. and our allies.
First, the timing. Washington and Tokyo were just wrapping up a military exercise in which thousands of their forces simulated both humanitarian and offensive operations; at the same time the U.S. and South Korea were conducting a joint cyberexercise. The North finds the U.S. exercises in its neighborhood particularly galling, perceiving them as preparations for an invasion, and has long chafed against them and timed its tests and other military moves to pointedly express that displeasure. And in case that wasn’t enough, just last Friday the Pentagon announced that Patriot anti-missile batteries would be brought to several new locations across Japan. Pyongyang certainly saw that as a double threat — we ignore their concerns and we make it harder for nuclear deterrence to work on Japan. This missile launch is how North Korea tends to respond to a situation like that.
Which brings us to message number two — the location. Sending a missile over highly populated Japan is provocative all by itself — a reminder that Pyongyang can target the country — and it is also risky. Missiles sometimes break up in flight — especially new and not well-tested ones. If a breakaway piece were to tumble to Earth, it would be very difficult to know in that moment that a U.S. ally was not under direct and intentional attack. North Korean missiles have overflown Japan before, but usually with more warning. The message to Tokyo: Don’t imagine that we will content ourselves with a war of press releases with Donald Trump and leave you out of it. You are Trump’s ally — are you certain he’ll protect you?