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To Shoot Down Or Not Shoot Down A North Korean Missile


The U.S. military has multiple systems that could potentially take down a North Korean test missile. But despite dozens of North Korean tests over the years, including 15 this year, the U.S. has not taken that step. Here's NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Would it be a good idea or a bad idea for the U.S. to try to shoot down a North Korean test missile? I put that question to analysts who've been tracking North Korea's program for years. And there was no consensus.

JONATHAN POLLACK: I think that there is ample and growing justification to attempt to shoot down.

MYRE: Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution says the U.S. needs to show its willingness to defend itself and its allies.

POLLACK: To not attempt an intercept sends the wrong message to North Korea. It certainly sends the wrong message to U.S. allies and, in a certain sense, also to the American people.

MYRE: President Trump says all options are on the table. Ground-based defenses are in South Korea and Japan. American anti-missile systems are in Guam and Hawaii, as well as Alaska and California. With North Korean missiles flying high over Japan, a U.S. response would most likely involve the Aegis System based on U.S. Navy ships stationed in Japan. Tom Karako is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

TOM KARAKO: If it's in the right place, and if a decision is made, then Aegis would presumably be a possible way to intercept these things.

MYRE: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has carried out more tests than his grandfather and father combined. This year has been the most active yet. And then there's that recent nuclear test. But Kim hasn't launched an actual attack against the U.S. or one of its allies. And Karako says that's an important distinction.

KARAKO: Is lobbing a missile over Japan into the sea - does that rise to the level of requiring a kinetic response? In the absence of a military threat, it's not something that needs to be done immediately.

MYRE: But Karako doesn't rule it out. He says it could send a message to Kim. But he doesn't see it as a solution to the larger issue of keeping the North Korean program in check.

KARAKO: It's one of the things that might be done once - maybe twice - to send a signal. But I think in principle, our military assets would be used for a military mission.

MYRE: And shooting down a missile is hard. It's often described as hitting a bullet with another bullet. Michael Auslin is at the Hoover Institution and says U.S. anti-missile systems are good and getting better. Still...

MICHAEL AUSLIN: It's a big gamble to decide whether or not to do this.

MYRE: He says that if the U.S. shot at a North Korean test missile and missed, that would make things worse.

AUSLIN: If we fail, then it would reveal the hollowness of the missile-defense policy that we have. And that would probably just wind up emboldening Kim Jong Un.

MYRE: All the analysts believe a North Korean missile fired at U.S. territory would almost certainly prompt a U.S. military action. But Auslin is not expecting the U.S. to act against a North Korean test, which would be a significant escalation.

AUSLIN: We simply don't have the confidence yet in these systems. A national missile-defense system really should become a priority. But, unfortunately, I don't think we're there yet.

MYRE: For now, U.S. policy still relies on sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.