The US military is considering shooting down North Korean missile tests as a show of strength to Pyongyang, two sources briefed on the planning told the Guardian.
As tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threaten confrontation in north-east Asia, the Pentagon is looking for ways short of war to pressure North Korea into denuclearization, particularly if Pyongyang goes forward with an anticipated sixth nuclear test.
The option, which defense secretary James Mattis has briefed to Congress, has yet to mature into a decision by the military to intercept a tested missile.
One US official said the prospective shoot-down strategy would be aimed at occurring after a nuclear test, with the objective being to signal Pyongyang that the US can impose military consequences for a transgression Donald Trump has said is unacceptable.
But experts and former officials said shooting down a North Korean missile during a test risks an escalation that Washington may not be able to control, one that risks war on the Korean peninsula and potentially devastating consequences to allies South Korea and Japan.
“I would see such an action as escalatory, but I couldn’t guess how Kim Jong-un would interpret it,” said Abraham Denmark, the senior Pentagon policy official for Asia in Barack Obama’s administration.
“But I would be concerned he would feel the need to react strongly, as he would not want to appear weak.”
Both sources said the military was not looking to use the high-profile missile-defense system the US is providing to South Korea, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad). Thaad’s 200km range and sophisticated radar have unnerved China, whose president, Xi Jinping, has been coaxed by Trump into pressuring North Korea.
Additionally, an operational Thaad installation is unlikely before 9 May, when South Koreans vote for a new president.
Instead, both sources said the military was looking at attempting a missile shoot-down with an Aegis missile-defense system aboard a US navy destroyer; or by convincing Japan to use its own missile-defense capabilities against a ballistic missile test traversing Japanese waters.
The USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group, which includes Aegis-equipped destroyers, is headed for the Korean peninsula.
In the past, several US administrations have considered shooting down North Korean missile tests, only to turn away from the option when considering the consequences of escalation against an unpredictable and bellicose adversary. Rumors have circulated since Trump took office that he has been mulling a shoot-down.
A US official said the military was discussing a potential shoot-down ahead of Trump’s meeting with Xi on 6 April at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The discussion also preceded Friday’s North Korean military parade, during which Pyongyang displayed advancements in its intercontinental ballistic missile program and anti-ship missiles, as well as a test-launch failure on Saturday.
Senior Pentagon officials pondering the shoot-down option are said to have conceded they are unsure how North Korea would respond. Neither Pentagon nor US Pacific Command representatives responded to a request for comment.
Another factor complicating a shoot-down would be the risk of embarrassment should Aegis interceptors miss a North Korean target, which might embolden Pyongyang and unnerve US regional allies.
Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, agreed that failure to bring down a missile would give North Korea a “psychological advantage”.
Cronin said the US was “far more likely to try to jam a missile test to ensure it does not fly far from the peninsula”.
US military officials are said to have been deeply disturbed after being taken by surprise at a North Korean missile launch in February. The commander in charge of US nuclear weapons, Air Force general John Hyten, recently told the Senate that the 11 February test was staged “out of a place we’d never seen before”.
North Korea’s advancements in solid-fuel rockets, mobile launch vehicles built for the north’s unpaved roads and cloud cover which frustrates satellite surveillance are causing US planners to fear that they may have little time to detect the next wave of North Korean missiles.
Ken Gause, director of the international-affairs group at the CNA thinktank influential with the Pentagon, said US planners have grown frustrated with coercive diplomacy amid North Korea’s maturing nuclear and missile capability. But Gause said that while Washington might spin a shoot-down as a step below an attack on North Korea or an attempt to overthrow its government, it risked validating Kim’s position that North Korea needs nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to respond to American aggression.
“I still see this as escalatory and playing with potential fire. At the end of the day, Kim Jong-un cannot be seen internally as backing down from pressure”, Gause said.
Robert Kelly, an associate professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University, said: “North Korea is banned from testing missiles by the UN, so in that sense we should be shooting all of them down. But instead the world has turned a blind eye. I don’t think it would be a bad idea to shoot down a test missile, as an attack on North Korea itself would be too provocative.”
The US vice-president, Mike Pence, is on a trip to north-east Asia focused on North Korea and has warned Pyongyang against testing Trump’s “resolve”, declaring an end to Obama’s “strategic patience” policy. North Korea’s deputy UN ambassador in turn warned on Monday that “a thermonuclear war may break out at any minute”.
North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 2, 2017
(Spencer Ackerman in New York and Justin McCurry in Tokyo contributed to this report. Story provided by theguardian.com)