Opinion

North Korea Tests a Hydrogen Bomb - and America's Military Credibility

Israel's Iron Dome has saved thousands of lives, but similar missile defense systems now face an unprecedented challenge from Pyongyang - as does the efficacy of America's military commitment to its allies

U.S. heavy bombers and stealth jet fighters took part in a joint live fire drill in South Korea on August 31, 2017.
U.S. heavy bombers and stealth jet fighters took part in a joint live fire drill in South Korea on August 31, 2017. HANDOUT/AFP

Hearts are in mouths, once again, as North Korea carries out its sixth nuclear test that it claims is a hydrogen bomb that could be loaded into an intercontinental ballistic missile with a range that includes areas of the United States. This comes days after the North Korean missile firing over Japan.

As the threat of war on the Korean peninsula grows, both South Korea and Japan, in cooperation with the United States, have taken action to strengthen their missile defenses.

Israel's long, advanced development of and experience with anti-missile technology is not only relevant but could offer a ray of light in increasingly dark regional scenarios – not least for the millions of civilians now within range.

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But the threat from North Korea, America's response, and the efficacy of missile defense systems and the strategies behind them now face an unprecedented test that will have global consequences.

During its war with Hamas in Gaza exactly three years ago, Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile shield reportedly intercepted up to 90 per cent of conventional rockets fired into Israel from Gaza, and helped to boost the morale and sense of safety of the Israeli public. South Korea has already expressed an interest in purchasing a version of the Iron Dome system. Israel is working closely with the United States on David’s Sling and the Arrow 3 missile defense system - designed to address a longer range nuclear missile threat from Iran.

Television news broadcast on North Korea's nuclear test at Seoul Station in Seoul, South Korea. Sept. 3, 2017
Jean Chung/Bloomberg

Understandably, some will question whether the lessons from the Gaza war are applicable to the more acute nuclear threat facing South Korea and Japan, as well as the U.S. Against Hamas, Israel faced the threat of short-range conventional rockets, while North Korea's conventional missiles are far more advanced and sophisticated, let alone what now appears to be a high-level nuclear-armed capacity.

Even so, the underlying principle remains the same: While ballistic missile defenses can neither eliminate Pyongyang’s nuclear threat, nor provide hermetic protection against missiles, even a partially successful shield can make life more difficult for the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un.

The idea behind missile defense is to dissuade revisionist states such as North Korea and Iran from pursuing aggressive action against a potential victim state: its missile threat will be devalued, and its military (and political) apparatus face exposure to severe retaliation, if the target country's defensive systems, including shields, protect those retaliatory capabilities.

This is known as ‘deterrence by denial’.  This form of missile defense means, in the current situation, that the United States would send a message to Pyongyang that if it fires off a missile barrage against its allies or its own territory, or even launches a nuclear strike, it will not only fail but would face certain dire punishment. This strategy was responsible for Israel countering the threat of Hamas’ rockets by the use of the Iron Dome shield in both 2012 and 2014.

The hydrogen bomb test may play a crucial role in shaping public opinion among North Korea's neighbors in terms of the enthusiasm for missile shield systems, which have not always been greeted with universal acclaim.

Many South Koreans protested against the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a U.S. missile defense system, amid Chinese anger and recriminations. China claims that THAAD poses a military threat to itself.  South Korea’s new president Moon Jae-in also had reservations, but as the threat from North Korea has escalated, his enthusiasm for the deployment of missile defenses in the South has grown.

Japan's missile defense system's first layer are interceptors on destroyers in the Sea of Japan, and if they fail, surface-to-air PAC-3s, as shown here at the U.S. Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo. Aug. 29, 2017
Eugene Hoshiko/AP

Japan has demonstrated a more consistent enthusiasm for such systems. It has deployed Patriot missile defense systems and has an Aegis destroyer with interceptor capabilities in the Sea of Japan.

The stakes are very high both for the United States and for its allies in East Asia, but there could be reverberations also for other countries worldwide that are vulnerable to missile attack.  

By deploying missile defense systems in East Asia, Europe and the Middle East, the United States is reinforcing its security commitments to its allies the world over. If defenses are perceived to be successful in deterring or intercepting North Korean missiles during a war, this would strengthen U.S. deterrence and reassure other U.S. allies that rely on its missile defense cooperation, including NATO member states, Israel and the Gulf States.

People walk out of a shelter after a civil defense drill at Seoul City Hall in Seoul, South Korea. Aug. 23, 2017
Ahn Young-joon/AP

But that may be an optimistic scenario. North Korea's multiple recent missile test launches suggest that Pyongyang is working to overcome anti-missile defenses. If war breaks out, North Korea is likely to use decoys and to fire large numbers of missiles to saturate those defense systems.

U.S. Admiral Harry Harris, chief of Pacific Command, warned in April at a House Armed Services Committee meeting that Hawaii could be overwhelmed by a potential North Korean missile barrage unless defenses were strengthened there.

Were Pyongyang to penetrate anti-missile shields, meaning possibly hundreds of thousands losing their lives in South Korea and Japan, the credibility of U.S. military commitments and strategy overseas will be critically harmed.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un purportedly offering guidance for his nuclear weapons program. Photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang, September 3, 2017
KCNA/REUTERS

There will be clear implications for Israel and the Gulf States about the sturdiness of U.S. defense systems deployed to protect these countries from a potential Iranian nuclear threat.

Against this, however, missile defense advocates would be justified in pointing out that without an anti-missile shield, the death and destruction could be far worse in the event of a North Korean nuclear strike.

The United States and its allies are right to bet on missile defense, but they can't afford to lose.

Dr. Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University. His latest book is Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2016). Twitter: @azrielb