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Obama faces shoot-down dilemma with North Korea launch
WASHINGTON, Mar 17 (Agencies):
Published on 17 Mar. 2009 10:00 PM IST
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If the North Korean regime goes ahead next month with a rocket launch, US President Barack Obama will face the dilemma of whether or not to shoot it down. A decision to knock the rocket out would assume US missile defense weaponry would work as designed, something skeptics question. Even if military success was assured, Obama would have to weigh the risk of retaliation by the Stalinist regime along with inflaming international opinion. The window for a decision would be a matter of minutes. In the early stage after launch during the “boost phase,” it would remain unclear if the rocket was bound for space with a satellite as North Korea has announced. “You don’t know from the path it’s going on at that point whether it’s headed to put something into space or to reach the US or somewhere close,” said Bruce Bennett of the Rand Corporation in California. During those early minutes, the president could order US Aegis destroyers and cruisers in the Sea of Japan to knock out the suspected missile, possibly on grounds that it posed a threat to Japan. Similar US Navy ships successfully shot down an errant satellite last year over the Pacific. Further into the launch, the trajectory of the missile would become apparent, either heading towards space or on a lower sub-orbital path like that used by intercontinental ballistic missiles. “By the time you get over the Pacific depending upon the design of their system, they may or may not have released the satellite, but you have a better idea of whether it’s really trying to head toward the United States or put something into orbit,” Bennett said. At that point, Obama could use the second line of defense, interceptors based in Alaska and California, to shoot down the missile. The reliability of that system has been fiercely debated, but the military says it has worked in 37 of 47 tests. Due to Russia’s reluctance, the Security Council has yet to issue a clear warning to North Korea ahead of the April launch. Washington and its allies say any launch would violate UN resolutions. The absence of Security Council backing would make it diplomatically difficult for Washington to pull the trigger, especially as Obama blasted his predecessor for backing unilateral action. In its public statements, the US administration has not appeared to be laying the ground for firing on the missile, said Michael O’Hanlon of the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “I’m dubious that we will or that we should,” unless there was a direct threat to Japan or legal backing from the Security Council, he said. The best case scenario for Obama would be another failed launch by the North Koreans, which was the result in 2006. If Obama opts for restraint and the North Koreans stage a successful launch, the regime will have demonstrated that is making progress in its missile program. And analysts say it would provide a boost to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il as it would come before South Korea’s first domestic satellite launch in June. The more hawkish view is that the United States would then be drawn into a Cold War-era type of standoff, potentially blackmailed by a regime wielding the threat of ICBMs. But some analysts say the regime is still some distance away from being able to manufacture a nuclear warhead that could be fit onto a missile and survive re-entry into the atmosphere. Perhaps the greatest risk of ordering a “shoot-down” is that it might fail, an embarrassing outcome that would hand a triumph to North Korea. “That would significantly undermine the credibility of our missile defense program, both within Congress which would likely say then why are we spending all this money, and with our allies who we are trying to encourage to become involved in the program,” Bennett said. Gauging the right US diplomatic response will also present a dilemma, analysts say, as North Korea might see a softer tone as a sign of weakness while a heavier reaction might be exactly what the regime is looking for. In 1993, the regime tested another new US president, Bill Clinton, in a similar way, announcing it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty. While the regime is portrayed as erratic, North Korea is “totally predictable” when it comes to missile tests, said Andrew Grotto, an analyst at the Center for American Progress. “They test missiles whenever they want attention, fear that they are losing diplomatic initiative, or to remind countries in the region that they are a force to be reckoned with,” he said.

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