This Week: North Korean Fireworks?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un aboard a North Korean naval vessel

As Kim Jong-un’s minions ready a rocket for takeoff – likely within this week – his neighbors are marshalling their missile-defense shields in the East Asia Sea and around cities that might be hit by an errant booster or rocket.

If North Korea launches its missile, and if it drifts off course, and if the allies try to shoot it down, we could be in for some fireworks well before July 4.

Three Japanese ships sailed for the East China Sea Saturday, along with a lone U.S. Navy vessel, to prepare to shoot down the North Korean missile if it drifts off course and threatens populated areas in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines or elsewhere.

Japan dispatched eight Patriot missile batteries to locations in Okinawa (where half of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan are based) and around Tokyo. South Korea is also deploying ships and interceptors in anticipation of the launch.

The ships would shoot down an errant missile in space; the Patriots are a second layer of defense if the ships’ interceptors missed. The U.S. also dispatched its Sea-Based X-band radar from Pearl Harbor last month to monitor the missile’s flight. The projected path of the missile suggests it will travel south over the East China Sea and Okinawa and beyond to the Pacific, rather than the more easterly route a 2009 North Korean launch took that had it fly over Japan’s main island.

North Korea insists it is only lobbing an “Earth observation satellite” into space to honor the 100th anniversary of its founder’s birth – and the current leader’s grandfather – Kim Il-sung next Saturday. The U.S. and its east Pacific allies view the firing as a long-range missile test barred by U.N. resolutions.

In North Korea’s two prior tests (both which apparently failed), the U.S. and its allies did little but watch Pyongyang’s missiles ascend. A shoot down might shut up Pyongyang because if – as it has pledged – treats such an operation as an act of war, the regime’s days will be numbered. Of course, if the allies shoot – and miss – that could prove embarrassing.

But the betting at the Pentagon is that with dozens of allied interceptors seeking to down one pesky Pyongyang rocket, they’ll get a hit of some kind (if more than one nation fires interceptors, proving who brought it down could prove interesting, diplomatically).

“A successful North Korean test could put Alaska at risk,” the Wall Street Journal warned in an editorial last Thursday. “Having failed to stop the North from developing a [nuclear] bomb, the U.S. can’t afford to let the world’s second most dangerous country [apparently Iran retains its #1 ranking on the Journal’s editorial page] become a global missile threat.”

Among some U.S. hawks, there is a palpable hunger for a shoot down. “The best way to break the logjam with North Korea, prove our commitment to our allies, and make stability more likely in East Asia, is to blow Pyongyang’s `satellite’ out of the sky,” argues Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute. “Reminding Kim Jong Un that we have a stick to use when he brushes off our attempts at the carrot might just make him and his handlers think about their own survivability.”

Former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst John McCreary has been watching the naval buildup with interest. “The precautions taken by the allies almost imply they welcome an opportunity to exercise their ship-born anti-ballistic missile systems,” he noted on his NightWatch blog. “Readers may be sure that the North Korean rocket or any of its stages will be fired on if there is any possibility it will traverse Allied airspace.”