While this series of North Korean missile tests is genuinely troubling, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the long-range Taepodong-2 missile failed miserably for one reason or another. This test apparently failed earlier in its flight than a 1998 failure, meaning that great strides probably have not been taken in the past eight years.
The other firings were of short-range Scud-type and medium-range Rodong-2 missiles. Still a cause for concern, to be sure, but certainly not a cause for panic. At least not in the US. It’s different for South Korea and Japan, of course. But if the DPRK really does have a mushroom-maker bomb and wants to use it locally, missiles aren’t the only delivery method option anyway. Seoul faces quick obliteration by North Korean artillery and has for some time now, so the real strategic change here seems to be fairly minimal.
For additional background see A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK.
UPDATE: Drezner asks Should you panic about North Korea or not? and has a map showing the ranges of Donger-1 and Donger-2 missiles.
He also points out the, um, Duck of Minerva, who notes:
The US and Japan have made all sorts of dark threats about punitive action if North Korea went ahead with the launch. Now we have to step up to the plate or risk having had our bluff called.
Murdoc must admit that he’s missed a lot of the goings on here, but this is indeed troubling. Having bluffs called doesn’t add any strength to an already-weak position.
I call our position weak because it appears more and more clearly that the only position of strength we have is war, and while probably called for it isn’t a particularly appealing option and there is very little in potential upside for our cause right now by fighting a war with the DPRK.
UPDATE 2: Let me clarify (well, restate differently) what I said about our position. I called it “weak”, which isn’t really what I meant.
What I meant was this: our only options for different courses of action are weak, other than military options. Our bargaining position is rather weak, in terms of reaching some sort of understanding with the DPRK. Our position to actually do things, of course, is pretty strong. And what we’ve been doing is pretty much what I think we should be doing.
It’s our position to effectively deal openly with the North Koreans that is fairly weak, because there is only so much more that sanctions can do, and it won’t be those in power suffering anyway. Sanctions only work when the leadership cares about the welfare of its citizenry, and many decades have shown conclusively that the DPRK’s leadership doesn’t care one bit.
The long-range missile test/show was a complete failure, and the medium-range shows of force didn’t alter the balance any. This display was probably meant more to rally the home team than to “send any message” to enemies or rivals.
Think back to the Iranian “super torpedo” tests. Little substance.