The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Taepo-Dong this Valiant Shield


June 21, 2006

One rule of international politics: when something interesting happens, look to see what else is going on because sometimes the they are related.

In other words, perhaps the North Koreans read the news too and aren’t as irrational as the Bush Administration would have you believe. Or, context matters. Take your pick.

Lets review: The North Koreans are preparing to launch a Taepo-Dong II missle into the Pacific Ocean. They are demanding direct bilateral negotiations with the US as the entry price for halting the launch, and the US has rejected such a meeting. Today, former Secretary of Defense William Perry called for a pre-emptive military strike on the North Korean missile.

What else is in play?

First, as Bill recently posted (and I largely agree with him), and both William Arkin and Bill Perry also agree, is the US missile defense project. This project has been justified and built with just such a North Korean threat in mind, and this incident is clearly a test of the the whole notion of missile defense. It tests the operational aspect–does it work, and it tests the conceptual aspect–does a missile defense system actually deter North Korea from launching a missile.

Second, speaking of “normal nations,” Japan, like Germany, has operated with a reduced military presence since 1945. Unlike Germany, which has the EU as an outlet for global influence, Japan’s drive to assert itself as a “normal nation” gives rise to the re-militarizaton debate. This crisis has sparked significant outcry from Japan, and given new life to arguments for a more assertive and militarized Japanese foreign and security policy. It has also prompted a mini mobilization, with Japan deploying ships to “monitor” the missile launch. Koizumi has promised “severe” measures in response to a launch.

Third (and the original point of this post before I got sidetracked by a few things…), the US is currently engaging in Valiant Shield. The Post describes the scale as:

the largest U.S. military exercises in decades… The maneuvers, dubbed “Valiant Shield,” bring three carriers together in the Pacific for the first time since the Vietnam War. Some 30 ships, 280 aircraft and 22,000 troops will be participating in the five-day war games.

The exercises are taking place in and around Guam, home to a large and growing US military base (with 8000 Marines expected to relocate there from Okinawa) which is not all that far from North Korea. The Navy Times knows this:

But the exercise, the largest gathering of aircraft carriers in the Pacific since the Vietnam War, also comes at a time when North Korea has given strong indication it will test-fire a missile powerful enough to reach the United States.

All the more reason, officials said, to establish regional stability through strength and numbers. With more than 20,000 personnel, three carriers, 28 ships and 290 aircraft in the air, Valiant Shield boasts both.

“The ability for the American military to generate forces and to bring them all together on relatively short notice is something that I think should be reassuring to our allies in the Pacific,” said Rear Adm. Michael Miller, commander of Carrier Strike Group Seven. “All of this makes for a more peaceful and secure region.”

Valiant Shield 2006 began Monday, marking the first of what will become biennial exercises involving different arms of the U.S. military, Miller said. The three carriers involved are the Reagan, USS Kitty Hawk and USS Abraham Lincoln.

The Navy wants to be able to dispatch more carriers on shorter notice as North Korea remains a threat and China builds up its military.

Here’s where the relevant context comes in. Back in the late 80’s / early 90’s, the US and South Korea held a regular military exercise called “Team Spirit” where the US would test its ability to work with adn reinforce ROK forces in the event of an invasion from the North. This exercise drove North Korea nuts because they had to go on alert for the whole time just in case the US wanted to use the cover of the exercise to launch an invasion. This mobilization was very expensive and threatening for the North Koreans, and Team Spirit was cancelled as a concession to North Korea in the nuclear negotiations around the Agreed Framework.

Now, could North Korea be looking at Valiant Shield and thinking– this exercise, which brings all 3 US Pacific Carriers together, where a ship-based anti-balistic missile ssytem will be tested– this exercise is a threat to us, a prelude to a US preemptive strike on North Korea? With Perry calling for one, with the requisite forces in action around Guam, could this be a tit-for-tat response? You test your joint forces, we test our missile.

Could be. Stranger things have certainly happened in DPRK nuclear diplomacy….

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.