The North Korean missile has the range to reach at least Hawaii or Alaska, an extremely uncomfortable fact given that Pyongyang is famously erratic and probably nuclear-armed. If launched, the missile would be unlikely to hit U.S. territory and unlikelier still to have something nasty on top. But the test itself — a step toward an even better-developed North Korean capacity to hit us — is alarming enough that two top Clinton-administration defense officials advocate a pre-emptive U.S. strike against the launch site, in what would be an act of war against a sovereign state.
This is the advent of the world that missile defense was designed to address. Reportedly, the Bush administration has switched the U.S. system, which includes 11 ground-based interceptors at sites in Alaska and California, from test to operational mode. If a North Korean test launch were to stray within its performance envelope, the system could be used to attempt to knock it out.
All of this should put to rest the canard about missile defense being "destabilizing." That was the charge made against the system when Bush first pursued it a few years ago, a charge based on outdated, abstruse Cold War arms-control theories that didn't even make sense at the time. Missile defense is clearly a stabilizing force, insofar as it gives an option to respond to North Korea short of a pre-emptive attack that could prompt a conflagration on the Korean peninsula.
Why do we need missile defense, critics ask, when we can use deterrence against threats like North Korea's? It is passing strange that liberals should want our only option in the event of a nuclear missile attack from North Korea or another rogue state to be absorbing the blow, then annihilating the offending country. And they complain about civilian casualties in Iraq?
The possibility of a missile-defense intercept itself plays an important role in deterrence. If a Kim Jong-il knows that a launch against the U.S. might not even succeed but risks calling down a devastating response, he would be that much less likely to try in the first place. Just as importantly, by rendering his nuclear arsenal less reliable, missile defense limits Kim's ability to deter and/or coerce the U.S. (from attacking him in the first instance and into giving him aid in the second).