It's hard not to be a bit anxious about the news, reported Thursday, that North Korea might launch a ballistic missile toward Hawaii next month. But the United States and its partners should resist the urge to panic. North Korea's nuclear and long-range missile capabilities are rudimentary and will likely remain so for years to come. (Pyongyang's long-range missiles won't likely reach all the way to Hawaii, given their record of failure. Kim Jong Il instead might be trying to send a message to President Obama, who was born and grew up in Hawaii.) In fact, the only thing to fear is literally fear itself: If severe economic sanctions are imposed on North Korea, they could result in the plausible worst case scenario of North Korea selling nuclear weapons or weapons-usable nuclear materials abroad.
As it stands today, North Korea cannot credibly threaten the United States with a nuclear attack from a ballistic missile or aircraft. The long-range Taepo Dong missile may someday have the reliable capability to hit the continental United States. But the two failed tests in recent years show that at least a few more trial runs would be needed to work out the technical kinks. Besides, the Taepo Dong is not likely to be able to carry its 500 kilogram payload, a first-generation nuclear warhead, over an intercontinental distance. Nor does North Korea have a long-range aircraft that could drop a nuclear bomb on the United States.