A dangerous game: Losing the chain of accountability through Korea-US-Japan missile defense and intelligence integration
Circles and Squares
The THAAD anti-missile system deployment and the recent intelligence sharing program between Korea and Japan are often linked in people’s minds in the sense that they are major shifts in military policy, but the larger implications are lost.
To start with, the overwhelming drive behind these changes, and many other shifts in security and diplomatic policy, is an effort to build a solid alliance between the United States, South Korea and Japan as a response to threats from North Korea and to deter an increasingly aggressive China. Many experts believe that THAAD plays no role in deterring North Korea’s missiles but only serves as a serious irritant to China that will leave us one day quite nostalgic for the days when a peace loving China had under 300 nuclear weapons (as is the case now) rather than ten thousand or more. China is one sixth of the world’s population and so essential a part of the global economy that the very concept of containment suggests a deeply flawed understanding of the extremely limited scale of the American economy.
But we overlook the more serious problems that lurk behind these institutional changes. Our primary concern should be with accountability and transparency. The THAAD and overall the anti-missile system is reportedly about stopping nuclear missiles from coming in from North Korea to attack South Korea, Japan and the United States. But in fact the THAAD system, combined with other elements of a comprehensive missile defense system for the United States and military allies in Northeast Asia, and throughout the world, is first and foremost about identifying a missile launch and taking the first step launch a counter missile to shoot it down. Whether the counter missile works is not so important as the act of launching the missile to attack which is an act of war. In effect, the integrated missile defense system is the place at which hostile acts by other nations (North Korea, China and Russia are generally assumed to be those nations, although only North Korea is mentioned in the media) are identified as such and the first step towards war is taken.
What if the hostile act is in fact a mistake, or even an intentional misreading of the other nation’s actions? This issue is extremely serious and should be at the center of the debate—yet all we get it an eerie silence.
Even more important is the question of how the decision is made to start hostile actions. The increasing integration of military activities between the United States, South Korea and Japan are establishing precedents for how an emergency would be handled. So far the prospects of avoiding a mistake are not good. To start with, how would a decision to engage in hostile actions start out? Well, in an ideal world, the information about an enemy launch from North Korea (or China) would be conveyed to the President of the United States (Trump) and he would confer with the heads of state of Japan and Korea and they would decide together.
I doubt anyone thinks this is what would happen. Increasingly it looks like the United States would make the decision, based on its own information without any review of that information by the Koreans or Japanese. But because it is missile defense, this decision would need to be made in minutes and there would be no possibility even for careful review within the United States. That is the real danger of the missile defense system: although it is not effective at stopping missiles, it makes it easy to quickly start a global war without proper consultation or accountability.
But let us go a bit further in this sticky matter. Would President Trump be the one to start military action? Well, according to the constitution he would be, but that document does not mean much in contemporary American politics. Now with Secretary of Defense Mattis openly defying him and large sections of the military in open revolt against his regime, it is not at all certain that the White House would be the one to determine whether the US goes to war.
I will not pretend to know how a supposed missile launch from North Korea or China would be interpreted as an act of war that merited hostile military action, but there is dangerous ambiguity that the decision would be made within the US military without any transparency or accountability to the people, or even the rulers, of the United States, Japan or South Korea.
We need to consider this issue in terms of the new agreements on intelligence sharing. Of course if there was a clear threat and the sharing of intelligence between the US and Japan, between the US and Korea and between Japan and Korea was a way for those working on the same problem to cooperate effectively in sharing information, then there would be a strong logic there. But is that what we are looking at? I doubt it.
To start with, the actual process of sharing intelligence is not at all transparent and we do not know from looking at the actual signed agreement what actually will be done. The concern for all of us should be rather that the United States, South Korea and Japan are passing over the process of deciding to take military action to an opaque and unaccountable system.
There are precedents for such behavior in the past. The First World War raged out of control at the start because a series of secret diplomatic agreements between the nations of Europe (which had never been revealed to the citizens of those nations) dictated the manner that Germany, France England Russia and Austro-Hungary should respond to the crisis. There was no space, no option for negotiations or even including experts in the decision-making process.
So are these intelligence-sharing agreements the equivalent of the secret diplomacy that dragged Europe into World War One? I fear that the parallels are significant. If intelligence is about a better understanding of the situation on the ground, then the process must be open. But from what I have been told (and I do not have any access to the actual classified agreements) it looks like each nation is being placed in a straightjacket whereby the decision to commence hostile actions is obscured and kept away not only from the people, but also from the leaders themselves.
Finally, we should not consider this situation to be merely a matter of bad policies. We are wrestling with technology itself. Increasingly these weapons systems have become automated, leaving humans out of the decision-making process altogether. It has been assumed that automation of the weapons system is a positive—but there is no evidence for that claim. As we know from the Cuban Missile crisis, what kept that incident from spinning out of control was the decisions of individual military officers in the United States and Russia. Such accountability is critical for our survival.
The media has spent endless hours hyping up the danger of a nuclear missile attack from North Korea, but passed over these extremely serious issues in complete silence. There is, in my opinion, a greater risk of a misinterpretation of some event as a hostile attack from North Korea leading to a global war than there is a risk of North Korea actually launching an attack.