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Q&A: ASU fellow calls North Korean missile test 'inherently tragic'

US missile test scheduled for this month at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
May 18, 2017

Center on the Future of War's Silverstone explains aspects of potential US response

A recent missile launch has thrust North Korea back into the national defense conversation, sparking concerns that the test might be a frightening milestone in Pyongyang’s quest to become a fully developed nuclear power; it also should raise the question, an ASU expert on international military conflict says, of how the U.S. should respond.

The intercontinental ballistic missile, called the Hwasong-12, proved capable of reaching U.S. allies South Korea and Japan along with Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific.

A U.S. missile test has been scheduled for this month at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and President Donald Trump previously has vowed to keep Kim Jong-un’s regime in check.

It’s a military tension that’s not likely to fade anytime soon, said Scott Silverstone, a former U.S. Naval officer, professor of international relations and director of the International Relations program at the United States Military Academy at West Point.Silverstone is also the author of “Stopping Hitler: the False Promise of Preventive War,” which is forthcoming later in 2017.

“We should be coming to terms with the inherently tragic nature of this problem, and the fact that there are no clear, clean solutions that will deliver a denuclearized North Korea,” said Silverstone, recently selected as an ASU Senior Future of War Fellow with the Center on the Future of War.

Founded in 2014, the center brings together ASU faculty and policy experts to explore the social, political, economic and cultural implications of the changing nature of war and conflict. The team comprises more than 100 affiliated faculty and three dozen national security experts at New America, an interdisciplinary Washington, D.C.-based think tank and civic engagement institution.

For a better understanding, ASU Now turned to Silverstone for this Q&A.

Man smiling
Scott Silverstone

Question: Given what we know about North Korea’s ICBM launch last week, how big a threat is it to the U.S. and its allies today?

Answer: North Korea does not yet have the technological capability to hit the continental United States with a missile, carrying either a nuclear or a conventional warhead. But we must assume that our South Korean and Japanese allies, as well as American forces on the islands of Okinawa and Guam, are within range of North Korean missiles that could carry a sufficiently miniaturized nuclear warhead.

Given the regime’s sporadic record of both success and failure as it develops and tests this technology, it is impossible to calculate the threat with precision. But making this basic assumption about North Korea’s ability to lash out at these targets should inform our approach to the broader North Korean problem.

This assessment is just a snapshot in time; the level of threat is actually in flux as North Korea continues to work toward a reliable ICBM and a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on top, and tough enough to survive re-entry into the atmosphere in the final stages of its flight toward the United States. The North Korean regime has been blunt in declaring this capability to be the ultimate goal of its nuclear program.

The question then is how should we respond to this dynamic threat, particularly in the face of such uncertainty over how far and how fast the North Koreans will progress toward this goal?

Q: How effective is our country’s missile defense system if North Korea were to launch an immediate attack?

A: This is a question that generates tremendous controversy.

The United States has invested heavily in missile defense technology over several decades, and these systems have passionate advocates in the defense community and defense industries that have had a role in the endeavor.

But the fact remains that missile defense is an unproven capability, and these systems have passionate critics as well.

The uncertainty over missile defense effectiveness means that American leaders should never enter a crisis with North Korea believing that if the crisis escalates to a missile launch we can safely shield ourselves and our allies with defensive technologies.

Deploying these systems might have a positive effect, however, if they help deter a North Korean attack, should the North’s leaders believe that an attack could be neutralized by THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), Aegis ships, or missile defense systems based in the United States.

Q: Where is the money and expertise coming from to help guide North Korea in its quest to develop nuclear weapons?

A: North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have benefited from decades of collaboration with countries such as the Soviet Union/Russia, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.

Since Kim Jong-un became North Korea’s president, however, he has pushed for the development of a more independent, indigenous scientific and technological base that can survive international efforts to starve the regime of the expertise and equipment necessary to develop a robust nuclear missile capability.

Recent reports suggest that North Korea has been remarkably successful in enhancing its homegrown capabilities.

Since the mid-1990s, the United States has linked food and energy aid to a North Korean agreement to freeze its nuclear weapons work; $1.3 billion in food and energy aid flowed between 1995 and 2008.

This aid was suspended when North Korea joined the nuclear club.

Another American food aid pledge in 2012 fell through when North Korea announced plans to conduct long-range missile tests.

Most recently, the United States provided $1 million of humanitarian assistance to North Korea in January through UNICEF in the aftermath of a terrible typhoon that hit the Korean peninsula in August 2016. 

Even in the absence of this aid, there is no reason to believe that the North Korean regime would have been without the financial resources to work toward nuclear missile capabilities.

Q: What role do we expect China to play in North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons?

A: Chinese government support for the North Korean regime has to be understood within the context of a nightmare scenario they are trying to avoid: the collapse of the North Korean regime, unification on the Korean peninsula under South Korean tutelage, and the movement of American military forces further up the peninsula and closer to the Chinese border.

On the one hand, China has a strong interest in propping up the regime to preserve the status quo.

On the other hand, the more North Korean belligerency frightens others in the neighborhood, the greater the outside pressure against the regime will be.

As a result, Chinese leaders are perpetually trying to keep the two sides of this dilemma in balance. It is safe to assume that China will not take deliberate steps to enhance North Korea’s aggressive potential, which will only lead to greater international backlash. But there are limits to how hard China will push the North Korean regime, as they try to keep it afloat.

Q: What should we as a society be discussing? And what should the media focus on as this situation progresses?

A: We should be coming to terms with the inherently tragic nature of this problem, and the fact that there are no clear, clean solutions that will deliver a denuclearized North Korea. The regime fervently believes that nuclear weapons are the key to its future survival.

The North Korean government has bluntly, and publicly, pronounced the lessons they learned from the experience of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. Saddam’s mistake, they say, was to provoke the United States without the nuclear weapons to deter invasion, occupation and his own execution.

Gadhafi’s mistake, they say, was to trust the West, to agree to dismantle his weapons of mass destruction programs, and to try to rejoin the international community. As the North Koreans see it, the first time the West had an opportunity to take Gadhafi down, when civil conflict erupted in Libya, they seized it, and he had nothing to deter the international attack that made it possible for Libyans to shoot him dead in the street. 

With this in mind, cajoling or coaxing North Korean disarmament is probably a nonstarter. A preventive military attack against North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure or missile development facilities will not solve the problem, either. 

At best, an attack will likely yield nothing but a temporary setback, and could prompt the regime to redouble its efforts to develop intercontinental nuclear reach. 

At worst, an attack will escalate to full-scale war, with terrible costs to the region, and possibly a desperate launch of nuclear weapons against some regional target. 

It is time to have an honest discussion of deterrence as perhaps the best of the bad options available to keep the threat in check.


Top photo: The statues of Kim Il-sung (left) and Kim Jong-un on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea. Photo by Wikimedia Commons/J.A. de Roo

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ASU student uses literature to shine light on marginalized groups

ASU doctoral grad said reading Chicana author Gloria Anzaldua changed her life.
May 18, 2017

Seventh annual Dia De Los Ninos/Dia De Los Libros at Tempe campus celebrates youth, languages, cultures and literacy

It wasn’t until her second year as a doctoral candidate at ASU that Tracey Flores first read Chicana author Gloria Anzaldua, and it changed her life: She remembers it as her first time reading stories she could relate to as a young Latina.

“I was just like, ‘Why didn’t I have this sooner?'” Flores said. At the time, she had been teaching elementary school in the Valley for about eight years, and she couldn’t help but wonder, “What would happen if we brought this kind of literature in (to kid’s lives earlier)?”

This week Flores and a team of helpers did just that when they welcomed roughly 450 junior high and high school students to ASU’s Tempe campus for the seventh annual Dia De Los Ninos/Dia De Los Libros, a celebration of youth, languages, literacy and cultures.

The event brings together Phoenix-area youth with local and national young-adult authors, with a focus on multicultural storytelling. The students get a chance to hear the authors speak about their personal experiences and struggles with reading and writing, and also attend literacy workshops given by the authors, ASU professors and grad students.

ASU English Professor Jim Blasingame helped organize the event with Flores. He said it shines a much-needed light on the cultural richness in Arizona, with its substantial Latino population and 22 indigenous nations.

“A lot of books in the young-adult canon are largely written by DOWMs — dead, old, white men,” Blasingame said. “But there are all these fantastic award-winning books and authors who are still alive” and who better reflect the experiences of Arizona youth. Better still, he added, “They can come here and meet with these kids.”

One who did, Duncan Tonatiuh, told students at the beginning of the day, “It’s important to share our stories, because if we don’t, others won’t either.”

Tonatiuh’s books reflect his Mexican-American heritage in both story and illustrative style, which is heavily influenced by pre-Columbian art with strong Aztec and Mayan overtones. Copies of his book, “Separate Is Never Equal,” were given out at the event.

“This event is really about connecting youth with literature that mirrors their experiences,” Flores said. “It provides a space for them to realize the power their stories and experiences can have to liberate and change lives, and how through sharing their stories and experiences, they can make a difference in the world.”

Flores, who earned her doctorate in English educationFlores also has a bachelor’s in journalism, Spanish and elementary education, as well as a master’s in curriculum and instruction, all from ASU. from ASU in May, will be relinquishing her role as director of the event when she heads to the University of Texas-Austin this summer to become an associate professor of language and literacy.

Celebrating marginalized identities in youth literacy has been one of the defining characteristics of her studies at ASU. Her dissertation, Somos Escritoras/We Are Writers, focused on the sharing of stories between Latina mothers and their adolescent daughters through their participation in a mother-daughter writing workshop.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now


“I grew up surrounded by stories,” Flores said. “When I think about the people who cultivated and nurtured me, it’s my nana and my mom, and even my sisters and my aunts. They told me a lot of stories growing up, stories to protect me and stories to teach me lessons and stories of struggle but also success, and I always carried that with me.”

Flores created Somos Escritoras so that other Latina girls could benefit from having a place to share their stories, where they felt heard and that their voices mattered. She recently received a grant through the Center for Excellence in Education to conduct a second iteration of the program, which will begin in June and take place at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.

When she moves to Texas, she hopes to partner with a similar program there, Con Mi Madre, to continue her work with mother-daughter literacy workshops.

Flores is also in the midst of a two-year fellowship with the National Council of Teachers of English, called “Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color.” It’s a prestigious mentorship program for advanced doctoral students and early-career scholars of color, and she said she’s relishing the opportunity to share research and receive feedback from “rock stars” in the field while advancing her personal mission.

“We need to honor and celebrate and create space for girls to find their voices and feel confident in finding their voices,” Flores said, noting how challenging but also liberating it was to earn her doctorate at ASU. “It has been a huge transformation for me, as a woman … in how I view the world, how I’m raising my daughter, in how I’m navigating the academy and the things that are important for me. And so if we can create classrooms and spaces like that for girls, I just think that we could make a huge difference in the world.”


Top photo: (From left) Imagine Desert West seventh-graders Brisa Silis and Arely Castro read the book "Separate Is Never Equal," copies of which they received during Dia De Los Ninos/Dia De Los Libro on Monday on the Tempe campus. The book's author, Duncan Tonatiuh, had told students earlier that day, “It’s important to share our stories, because if we don’t, others won’t either.” Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now