How the US should handle a new missile launch by North Korea

A woman walks past a television display at a train station in Seoul, on Sept 3, 2017, showing a news broadcast with a graphic about a history of North Korean nuclear tests.
A woman walks past a television display at a train station in Seoul, on Sept 3, 2017, showing a news broadcast with a graphic about a history of North Korean nuclear tests.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - White House and Pentagon officials are scrambling to decide how the US should react if North Korea were to launch another intercontinental ballistic missile in the next few days and demonstrate that it can reach Guam, or a distance equivalent to striking the US West Coast.

Here's a look at the choices President Donald Trump has, and their downsides.

1. A PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKE 

President Donald Trump has told friends he is proud of the moment in April when he ordered an airstrike on a base where the Syrian government was believed to have launched chemical weapons attacks.

The bombing unfolded during a visit to the US by China’s President Xi Jinping, giving Mr Trump the chance to tell him about it during dinner and to send an unspoken message about what might happen in North Korea if it, like Syria, crossed a “red line”.

Technologically, it would not be difficult to destroy North Korea’s missiles. US warships off the Korean coast could easily hit its launch site, which is near the Sea of Japan. But, unlike the Syrians, the North Koreans know how to strike back – at South Korea, or US bases in Japan.

Still, destroying one missile would do nothing to the North’s many others.

And it might be hard for the US to prove the missile was truly threatening – without evidence of its target.

US officials could argue, though, that the North’s leader Kim Jong Un offered an unsubtle hint when he was photographed recently by state-run media examining maps of targets in Guam, including a US air base that houses bombers that can reach North Korea.

2. SHOOTING DOWN OVER THE PACIFIC

Never has there been a bigger moment for American missile defences – or greater reluctance to use them.

In the vision the Pentagon has sold to Congress for decades, the warhead of an adversary’s missile could be tracked and destroyed in mid-flight or closer to landing, known as the terminal phase.

That is the event for which the US often trains, with decidedly mixed results. If the North Korean missile’s target was Guam, or the waters near it, shooting it down would be an iffy proposition. The first shots would be taken, most likely, by destroyers armed with Standard missiles, the most successful anti-missile system in the US arsenal.

But to make it work, the destroyers would have to be in the right place, former senior officials say.

A Thaad missile defence system, like the one the US has placed in South Korea, could also be employed. If the missile were headed towards continental US, it could be taken out by one of the anti-missile systems in Alaska and California. In tests, they hit the target about half the time, under perfect conditions.

3. LET IT HAPPEN

This has been the approach thus far: Track the missile, determine quickly whether it is a threat to a populated area, and let it fall into the sea. That is the most cautious response, and Mr Trump could use it to press China and Russia to drop their objections to more United Nations sanctions.

But it is not cost-free. In each test, the North Koreans get more information to perfect their future launches. And after Mr Trump warned that any threat to the US would be met with “fire and fury”, he is acutely aware that making no active response might make it look as if he had ignored his own red line, exactly what he accused his predecessor Barack Obama of doing with Syria.

4. CYBER ATTACKS

In today’s cyber age, perhaps the most tempting solution for presidents is to reach for America’s most stealthy weapon. That is what Mr Obama did in 2014, when he ordered an acceleration of cyber attacks aimed at preventing launches.

But there is debate over the effectiveness of that operation and little visible evidence that the cyber attacks, if continuing, are working now. Perhaps the US is waiting for the right moment, but, as one former senior cyber operator said, no target is harder than North Korea.