Wile E. Coyote’s Fourth of July

As Americans celebrated the Fourth of July, North Korea shot off some of their own fireworks by test-firing four short-range missiles (that could reach South Korea and Japan) and a long-range missile that some analysts believe could reach parts of the United States with a light payload. This latter missile was the Taepo Dong-2, and according to the National Intelligence Council’s Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat Through 2015:

"The Taepo Dong-2 in a two-stage ballistic missile configuration could deliver a several-hundred-kg payload up to 10,000 km – sufficient to strike Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the continental United States. If the North uses a third stage similar to the one used on the Taepo Dong-1 in 1998 in a ballistic missile configuration, then the Taepo Dong-2 could deliver a several-hundred-kg payload up to 15,000 km – sufficient to strike all of North America."

In its two-stage configuration, the Taepo Dong-2 missile is believed to use four No Dong engines clustered together as the first stage and a single No Dong as the second stage. Not only is such a missile at least five-times more likely to fail than a single-stage No Dong missile (itself far from reliable), but also sounds more like something the Wile E. Coyote cartoon character would think up in his ever futile quest to catch the Roadrunner. The fact that the Taepo Dong-2 missile test fired by the North Koreans failed 35 seconds after being launched seems to confirm its Wile E. Coyote status.

The reality is that even if North Korea could eventually develop a long-range missile capable of reaching the United States, the United States possesses overwhelming superiority with its strategic nuclear arsenal of thousands of warheads that can be delivered by land-based missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers. The result is that even if Pyongyang could target the United States with a few nuclear weapons, it could still not escape the reality of credible U.S. nuclear deterrence any more than the Soviet Union or Communist China could. All nation-states have a return address, and their leaders know that any attack on the United States would be met with an obliterating retaliatory attack by the massive U.S. nuclear arsenal. Also, while individual fanatics may sometimes be willing to commit suicide for a cause, prominent political leaders rarely display that characteristic.

Moreover, over the years, the United States deterred the likes of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mao Zedong. None of those leaders seriously contemplated attacking the United States. And the reason for their restraint was quite simple: they knew that such an attack would mean certain retaliation resulting in their own annihilation. So why would an erratic and unpredictable leader such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il not be similarly deterred? It cannot be because he is more brutal than America’s previous adversaries. Khrushchev and Brezhnev were thuggish, and Mao and Stalin were genocidal monsters. Likewise, a credible case cannot be made that Kim Jong-Il is more erratic and unpredictable than the tyrants the United States deterred in the past. Stalin epitomized paranoia, and Mao was the architect of China’s utterly bizarre Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s – at the very time that China was acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability.

Like the other members of the Axis of Evil, the threat posed by North Korea is overrated. The U.S. economy is more than 600 times larger than North Korea’s, and North Korean defense spending is less than 2 percent of current U.S. defense expenditures. Moreover, the U.S. military is far and away the most modern and technologically advanced in the world. For example, the U.S. Air Force’s F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon are considered the world’s premier fighter aircraft, despite their designs dating back to the 1970s. Similarly, the U.S. Army’s Abrams tank does not have an equal. No other country in the world has a Navy with large-deck aircraft carriers. And the U.S. military has a virtual monopoly on precision-guided or "smart" weapons, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS)-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition or JDAM. By comparison, North Korea has to make do with older weapons purchased from either the former Soviet Union or China. As a result, the United States possesses bone-crushing military dominance, so it is hard to imagine why a country like North Korea would cause a superpower to shake in its boots.

If the gravest danger facing the United States is terrorism, then North Korea would appear to be even less of a threat. Although the State Department considers North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, it acknowledges that "the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987." Previously, North Korea was connected to terrorism via the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction and its members, who participated in the hijacking of a Japanese Airlines flight to North Korea in 1970. The goal of the Red Army Faction is to overthrow the Japanese government, but with only six hardcore members they can hardly be characterized as a threat to the United States.

If North Korea is a threat to anyone, it is a threat to its immediate neighbors. But America’s allies in East Asia are perfectly capable of defending themselves. According to the CIA, "North Korea, one of the world’s most centrally planned and isolated economies, faces desperate economic conditions." North Korea’s GDP was $40 billion compared to $965 billion for South Korea (more than 20 times North’s Korea’s). South Korea also outspends North Korea on defense nearly four-to-one, $21.1 billion vs. $5.5 billion. Japan’s GDP was $4.0 trillion (100 times larger than North Korea’s), and defense spending was $44.3 billion for defense (eight times that of North Korea). So South Korea and Japan certainly have the economic resources to adequately defend themselves against North Korea.

In the final analysis, we need to put North Korea in proper perspective. As Jeffrey Record (formerly a visiting research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College and author of Bounding the Global War on Terrorism) reminds us: "It was, after all, al-Qaeda, not a rogue state, that conducted the 9/11 attacks, and it is al-Qaeda, not a rogue state, that continues to conduct terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western interests worldwide." So while we cannot ignore North Korea, we must also remember that the enemy at the gates is al-Qaeda.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.