Over Missiles, U.S. Ponders Whether a Rogue Is a Rogue

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European governments have been howling the loudest over Washington's plans to build a missile shield. They worry about its high cost and about being left out of any defense system the U.S. deploys. But it may be Asia that ends up pulling the rug out from under the son of Star Wars.

The Clinton administration envisions deploying 100 rocket interceptors in Alaska to counter a missile threat from North Korea, the rogue state it considers most likely to field long-range missiles the soonest. Last week, the CIA repeated a warning it has delivered to the White House before that Pyongyang could have missiles capable of striking the U.S. by 2005.

But North Korea has lately been sending signals that it might not cooperate with that prediction. During his July 19 visit to Pyongyang, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced that strongman Kim Jong Il had told him North Korea would shelve its intercontinental ballistic missile program if other countries would launch several of its satellites at their expense. Washington was skeptical. Was Kim making the offer? Or was this an offer Putin hoped he would make so Moscow could derail the U.S. missile defense plan, which it opposes?

Suspicions increased nine days later when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met North Korean foreign minister Paek Nam Sun at a conference in Bangkok. Paek told Albright he could say nothing about Kim's offer. American diplomats say either Kim never made the offer or he simply hadn't told Paek about his conversation with Putin. The latter is possible since U.S. officials believe that Paek is only a flunky; Kim runs the country's foreign policy.

But a week later, Russian officials revealed that they have a letter they say Kim gave Putin during his July 19 visit, which reaffirms Pyongyang's offer to halt its intercontinental ballistic missile program. That pricked up ears in the State Department, which is now probing North Korean diplomatic contacts to find out just what the "Dear Leader" has in mind.

He may be trying to hatch a deal similar to the one he negotiated with the U.S., Japan and South Korea that mothballed his nuclear weapons program in exchange for oil shipments and civilian nuclear reactors. If so, it might slow the U.S. rush to deploy missile defenses, at least for now. Why erect a shield if the country you're worried about isn't building the missiles? Launching North Korea's commercial satellites would be expensive, but not nearly as much as the $60 billion missile defenses could cost.

China, as well, may dull Washington's appetite for a shield. The CIA also warned the White House last week that Beijing might respond to a U.S. missile defense by increasing its strategic missile force tenfold. China now has 20 nuclear-tipped ICBMs, but the CIA worries that it might expand that force so a U.S. shield doesn't render its strategic deterrence worthless. That's a possibility that's very real, and Washington has to take it seriously. The CIA intelligence on North Korea is based as much on guesswork as on hard facts, but the agency knows that China can ramp up its force.

Administration officials say China was planning to modernize its ICBMs anyway and they're uneasy about "buying off" North Korea "for something they shouldn't be doing in the first place," as one senior aide put it. And, they argue, a missile shield is still needed to protect against other rogue states like Iraq and Iran that are itching to deploy ICBMs. But it may be a decade before those countries are a threat. If North Korea abandons its program, billions wouldn't have to be spent for a shield so soon, and free launch services may prove a small price to pay for it.