There is a peculiar symmetry to Washington’s decision last week to activate its ground-based missile-defense system and North Korea’s threat to launch a long-range missile. While research, development, and even limited deployment of the U.S. system make sense, it will be years before it is dependable. Fortunately, it will also be years before North Korea will be able to nuke the United States.
There are four ways this crisis can end. If North Korea launches a missile, the United States can shoot it down, hold fire, or try to shoot it down and miss. Pyongyang can also back down and not test its missile. The first outcome would be a mixed blessing; the second would be embarrassing; the third would be a disaster. Whatever happens now, though, given the lack of an immediate threat to American cities, Washington's decision to activate the ground-based missile defense was probably a mistake.
Michael A. Levi is fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is co-author, with Michael E. O'Hanlon, of The Future of Arms Control.