Oren Dorell (USA Today): Japan and South Korea must form a military alliance and bolster missile-defense systems to counter the nuclear threat from North Korea, which on Wednesday launched its first three-stage rocket, experts say.
Michael Mazza, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, says the countries should unite to toughen sanctions as well as conduct extensive military exercises and share intelligence.
They could also form a military pact guaranteeing each would come to each other’s defense, a move that may get the attention and cooperation of China, North Korea’s backer and chief ally.
“It would be a message to North Korea, ‘You can’t play one off the other. You’re dealing with a united front,'” he said.
The initial reaction from the USA, South Korea and Japan was to condemn the launch of the Unha-3 rocket, which the North Korean regime said was to put a peaceful satellite into orbit. But the USA said the launch was a test of long-range missile technology that in theory could deliver an attack against the USA.
The launch should be “a wake-up call for a change” in U.S.-North Korea policy that has spanned the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama’s first term, says Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Instead of engaging in “six-party talks” that have included both Koreas, China, Russia and Japan, the USA should approach China directly “to help prevent the nuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Rogers said. “We have got to get them engaged.”
Rogers said China is the one country with enough influence over North Korea to end its nuclear program. Otherwise, South Korea and other countries may have to pursue nuclear weapons as a deterrent against North Korea’s arsenal.
“One can only assume that if North Korea develops nuclear weapons the South Koreans won’t stand idly by,” he said.
Wednesday’s launch is significant because it marks the first successful three-stage separation that is necessary for an intercontinental strike, says Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation and disarmament program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
The launch, the second in eight months, also marks a quicker tempo to North Korea’s weapons program, which previously launched in three-year intervals.
“That tells us they’re getting better at this, and they’re making greater efforts,” Fitzpatrick said.
North Korea is still years away from fitting a nuclear warhead on its rocket and safely returning it to earth, said Fitzpatrick, a former senior non-proliferation policy adviser at the U.S. State Department. But, “They’re certainly moving in that direction,” he said.
Experts in the USA and China predicted more sanctions are not the answer since they would be blocked by China at the United Nations or ignored by North Korea and and other nations willing to abet its weapons program.
“This time, just like previous times, all international pressure on North Korea, including Chinese, is ineffective,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at People’s University of China in Beijing.
Although the USA, Japan and South Korea will push for a new sanctions resolution, “China will not agree,” said Shi.
The West has imposed economic sanctions on North Korea, but the USA is not in a position to impose the ultimate sanction of a military attack “because it would start a second Korean war and America’s ally, the South Korean capital, would go up in flames,” Fitzpatrick said.
The latest example of failure was in April, when North Korea launched a missile two months after a supposed landmark Feb. 29 agreement to halt uranium enrichment and missile launches.
United Nations Security Council resolutions have authorized naval interdictions, but Fitzpatrick says that in practice those are limited to weapons shipments destined for Iran. A naval blockade of North Korea would be an act of war, he says, “and that’s a step too far right now.”
Bruce Klingner, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation who used to work at the CIA, says the USA and its allies need to take additional steps to protect themselves.
Both Japan and South Korea have Aegis sea-based missile defenses and land-based systems, but getting the two countries to work with each other has been difficult. Historic animosities between the two date to the Japanese occupation of Korea up until World War II and ongoing disputes over several islands, Klingner said.
Both countries’ defense communities want to work together but are held back by domestic politics, he said.
“We hope that China’s bad behavior and North Korea’s bad behavior would make it easier for Japan and South Korea to put aside some of their differences and focus on the real threats of China and North Korea rather than being focused on historic issues,” Klingner said.
The USA, Japan and South Korea held their first joint military exercises last summer. They were supposed to enter an intelligence sharing agreement in June of this year but it was scuttled over South Korean worries about being forced “to share its secrets with the hated colonial oppressor,” Klingner said.
Had it been in place Wednesday, that agreement would have allowed South Korea and Japan to exchange information on Wednesday’s launch and have a more extensive and integrated missile defense system, Klingner said.
“Pragmatic defensive actions are prudent and non-escalatory,” he said.
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