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North Korean nukes unlikely to reach US

North Korea recently boasted that its nuclear weapons could reach the US. This theory has been rebuked and challenged by many scientists in the West, though fear of an Asian arms race is developing.

non-nuclear]short-range threat seems sensible,” Schiller added, “the North Korean missile program appears largely to be a political tool to gain strategic leverage, to fortify the regime’s domestic power, and to deter other countries” — particularly South Korea and the US — “from military action. Operational readiness seems to be secondary.”

Explaining why South Korea sees a need to expand both the range and the payload of its missiles, Chun Yung-woo, senior secretary to the South Korean president for foreign and security affairs, said according to a Yonhap story, “We will secure effective and various means to incapacitate North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities and safeguard the lives and safety of our people if North Korea launches armed attacks.”

Critics of that plan include Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asian Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. “It seems that the idea is to zap nuclear missiles in North Korea before they launch,” he wrote in his blog.

“Mobile ones. Good luck finding them, and let’s just hope that preempting nuclear targets doesn’t start a nuclear war.”

And Council on Foriegn Relation’s Snyder warned that “expanded South Korean ballistic missile ranges might feed a regional arms race.”

Speculating in an email on South Korea’s real motivation for expanding its own missiles’ reach, Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus, said it may not be about the North Korean threat as much it’s about South Korea’s “desire to be acknowledged as a great power — maybe, in the long run, also about the threat from China.”

North Korea’s recurrent bombast has proved useful to enemies as they seek to prepare their defenses against China, a far more formidable potential foe. The US, and Japan use the North Korean threats as justification for expanding ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems — thus minimizing the need to make undiplomatic mention of the region’s 800-pound gorilla.

Former diplomat Taniguchi, currently at Japan’s Keio University, said it’s an open secret that — far more than the open North Korean threats to obliterate the capital of its former colonial master — the potential threat posed by China “has been a chief driver for the US and Japan to jointly develop their ballistic missile defense capabilities.”

China’s “missiles have covered Japan’s whole territory with nuclear warheads and decoys,” Taniguchi said. Even with its defense budget appropriations as a whole shrinking, he said, Japan has not ceased to invest in scaling up ballistic missile defense.

“The remote second part of the threat is what Pyongyang says it has,” Taniguchi said. Comparatively minor as Pyongyang’s capability may be, though, its “big-mouth talk of missile threat” is “another reason why Japan has been able to sustain its budget for BMD capabilities, which in a year or two will equip all the Maritime Self Defense Force’s Aegis-type destroyers with missile defense capabilities.”

Japan’s emphasis on missile defense contrasts with South Korea’s move to expand the range and payload of its attack missiles. A Tokyo-based arms expert (who spoke anonymously because his employer must sign off on any comments to the news media) summed up by saying South Korea wants to “strike artillery, command posts, mobile SCUDs, whatever — very offensive defense. Japan’s equipment is more defensive — wait ‘til they shoot.”

The divergent approach coincides with political tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, whose relationship these days looks more like rivalry than alliance even though each is allied separately with the US. In July, Seoul backed off at the last minute from signing what was to be called the Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement.

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak used a longstanding dispute over ownership of some remote islands as a “handy excuse,” Taniguchi complained.

In Bechtol’s view “the South Korean move of acquiring ballistic missiles with longer ranges, while not acquiring ballistic missile defenses that they need to protect them from North Korea’s SCUDs, is just bad military policy and a big waste of money.”

The PAC-3 missile defense system that the US and Japan have been deploying “seems to be working now, and it is certainly a lot more of a deterrent than simply building missiles,” Bechtol said. The US does have some batteries in South Korea, he said. “The problem is, they protect American bases. There is nothing protecting South Korean population centers and military bases except outdated and largely unreliable ballistic missile defenses from the 1990s.”

Like Joe Biden debating Paul Ryan, North Korea appears to be having fun with this. According to the official Korean Central News Agency, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman on Wednesday charged that “the US is left with no moral qualifications to talk about the development of the DPRK’s missile capability, as it is the chieftain that sparked off [a] new missile arms race in Northeast Asia.”

Pyongyang doesn’t need an excuse to provoke its enemies — even at the risk of irritating its sort-of friend, China — but is always happy to be able to marshal new justifications for its actions. Don’t be surprised to see a missile or nuclear test soon, perhaps in the first few months of 2013. By then, elections in the United States, Japan and South Korea and a planned succession in China will have installed new or reshuffled administrations whose reactions Pyongyang can test along with its own technology.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.