If North Korea tests missile, might US shoot it down?

A North Korea missile test into the Sea of Japan now looks likely, say defense analysts, and the US Navy could 'probably intercept' it. But that may not be in the best interests of the US, some say.

Lee Jae-Won/Reuters
A US Army Patriot missile air defense artillery battery is seen at US Osan air base in Osan, south of Seoul, South Korea, Friday. North Korea has placed two of its intermediate range missiles on mobile launchers and hidden them on the east coast of the country in a move that could threaten Japan or US Pacific bases, South Korean media reported.

North Korea’s movement of two missiles toward its east coast means it may be preparing for a test launch, according to South Korean officials. Such an action would be a thumb in the eye of its adversaries and could escalate existing tensions on the Korean peninsula.

The missile in question appears to be a medium-range model known to the US and its allies as a “Musudan.” Apparently based on an old Soviet submarine-launched ballistic weapon, the Musudan is a liquid-fueled road-mobile model with an estimated range of about 1,800 miles. Though it may have been fired as a stage of a long-range ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), the US is doubtful the Musudan system itself has ever been fully tested.

The Musudan can’t threaten the United States, noted South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin. But it could hit Japan, Guam, or South Korea.

In the past, North Korea has warned mariners through official channels of its intentions to fire missiles over the open ocean. It has not done that yet. If it were to carry out a test without such a heads-up, would the US or its allies try to shoot the missile down? That’s an open question given that the US has moved two destroyers equipped with missile-defense interceptors into the region.

Both South Korea and Japan have short-range missile defense systems. If the Musudan is launched from North Korea’s eastern coast, its flight path could take it over the Sea of Japan and Japan itself. Prior to a long-range North Korean missile test last year, concerned Japanese officials ordered their military to attempt to destroy the missile if it appeared to be wandering near their territory.

Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst and North East Asia deputy project director at the International Crisis Group, noted on Thursday that a North Korean missile test into the Sea of Japan is now “likely.”

“Navy probably intercept it if it has a good shot. If so, would [North Korea] feel it must counterattack?” he tweeted.

Given the stakes, advance planning for a missile-test scenario is now crucial, adds George Lopez, Hesburgh Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a former member of a United Nations panel for monitoring North Korea sanctions.

Shooting down a test missile would play into North Korea’s depiction of its ongoing “war” with South Korea and the US, says Mr. Lopez. Allowing it to pass unharmed could prompt unified regional condemnation that works in US officials’ favor.

Would the US really feel it necessary to take aim at a North Korean test launch?

“I would hope and expect not,” says Lopez in an e-mail. “But if we are moving that kind of technology into the neighborhood AND we think [North Korea] needs to get a strong message AND we don’t want our two allies in the region to do it THEN the possibility increases.”

Of course, North Korea could also lower tensions by simply not undertaking the test – or perhaps by giving clear warning, followed by a flight path that takes the missile into open waters far from any adversary, removing any ambiguity as to whether the missile is an actual attack.

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