March 26, 2013

Will the U.S. Spend $100 Billion to Stop a Madman?

Earlier this year, North Korea announced plans to test long-term missiles capable of targeting the United States. In making the announcement, North Korean state media called the U.S. “the sworn enemy of the Korean people” and vowed “all-out action” against America. Last week, North Korea threatened U.S. bases in Japan and Guam. Welcome to the 21st century ‘Cold War.’  

In late February, former NBA star Dennis Rodman was invited to North Korea by President Kim Jong Un, who is supposedly a huge basketball fan. Rodman is perhaps better known for his outlandish personality than his ability on the court, and no one could have predicted that he would be the first American to visit the furtive country. These episodes illustrate the stark challenges the United States and its allies have in dealing with a nuclear North Korea, as well as with other rogue nuclear nations.

Last December, North Korea launched a nuclear test --a precursor to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The test drew international condemnation and new sanctions from the United Nations. China, North Korea’s most important ally, has implemented more rigorous port inspections of Korean goods as a way of punishing Kim Jong Un for his aggressive behavior. And yet no country really knows how to engage a leader who practices diplomacy by inviting a fading basketball star as his guest.

North Korea’s December missile test shows they’re getting closer to having the ability to target the U.S. mainland. Defense experts claim the U.S. will need to commit money and resources to counter the threat, since current anti-ballistic missile technology is unreliable and underfunded. “We have the building blocks of a defense, but not a full defense,” said Patrick Cronin, Senior Advisor & Senior Director of the Asia Program at the Center for New American Security (CNAS).

“We’re going to end up deploying 40 to 50 interceptors on the West Coast; we’re going to have more patriotmissile garrisons in South Korea and Japan. That will all be oriented toward a growing North Korean nuclear threat.” But it’s not clear just how much will be needed to effectively deter Kim Jong Un and other rogue nuclear states, begging the question: How much will the United States spend to stop a madman?


 In 2010, President Obama told Congress he would spend $100 billion on nuclear modernization, but he has not followed through. In fact, he has scaled back the Airborne Laser defense program and eliminated a program that created interceptor missiles. He also cut $1.4 billion from the Missile Defense Agency’s 2010 budget and eliminated missile shield programs in Poland and the Czech Republic.This month, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the Pentagon would recommit $1 billion of that money for interceptors based in Alaska.

But as North Korea emerges as a nuclear power, and other rogue states like Iran continue to pursue nuclear weapons, additional money will likely be needed to maintain a nuclear deterrent.Part of the problem of creating an effective deterrent against North Korea, according to Stephen Long, a professor of international studies at the University of Richmond, is that North Korea’s goals are neither clear nor realistic.“Their ideal outcome is to remove most of the economic trade sanctions” imposed by the United Nations because of their nuclear program, he said.

 “They want a guarantee that the United States and South Korea will not invade. Their position has always been that the armistice signed at the end of the Korean War is not a peace treaty.”According to Long, it’s difficult to understand how North Korea will attempt to accomplish these goals because so little is known about the 30-year-old dictator, Kim Jong Un. So far, the majority of his statements have been attempts to provoke South Korea and the United States.“We’re seeing Kim Jon Un acting more aggressively than his father did,” Long said, referring to Kim Jong Il. “There are a lot of questions about what direction he is going in and why he is being so disagreeable.”Long said he does not believe these tensions will lead to war, but he does think there could be incidents where lives are lost. This escalation will force the United States to reconsider how much to spend on its nuclear deterrent.


Missile defense systems are far from a sure success. The United States spent billions on the unsuccessful Star Wars missile defense programs in the 1980s. But the willingness of Washington to spend money on the program showed Moscow how seriously the United States took the Soviet nuclear threat.If tensions with North Korea continue to rise, a similar signal may need to be sent to Pyongyang.“The South Koreans have been on hair trigger alert ever since” the December missile test, CNAS’s Cronin said. “If the situation escalates, the United States and South Korea would have to respond much more rapidly to demonstrate to the North that they can’t get away with this.”