Empty Threats Over North Korean Missiles?

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The Sea-Based X-Band Radar sails into Pearl Harbor aboard the MV Blue Marlin in January. As North Korea prepares to test-fire a missile, the U.S. has reportedly made its missile defense system operational

To say that the Bush Administration is exasperated by North Korea's provocations is an understatement. After all, the only thing worse than watching a charter member of President Bush's "Axis of Evil" thumb its nose at the international community is not having an effective means to respond. And despite all the tough talk emanating out of Washington, the U.S. has few good options for responding to the latest bit of saber-rattling from the hermit Stalinist regime in Pyongyang, this time involving an all-too-real saber: A Taepodong 2 long-range missile, which some analysts believe may be capable of hitting Alaska, while others suggest its range may be far more limited. The U.S. has warned North Korea against test-firing the missile, and has hinted that it may even consider trying to use its own missile-defense interception system to bring it down — although both technical and geopolitical considerations militate against such an action.

North Korea's latest missile posturing has been widely interpreted as an effort to reclaim the international spotlight from the standoff over Iran's nuclear program — by warning the international community that if the six-party talks over its own nuclear program remain stalled, it can cause plenty of trouble. That perception was reinforced Wednesday by reports that North Korean officials had responded to concerns over its planned launch by calling for direct talks with the U.S. over the issue. Pyongyang has long sought such talks, but Washington insists that the six-party process remains the forum for addressing international concerns over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

If the North Koreans are engaged in political theater with missiles, the U.S. may have decided to respond in kind. U.S. officials reportedly acknowledged Tuesday that Washington's multibillion-dollar missile defense system has been made operational in the past two weeks, despite the fact that the system — whose success rate even in tests rigged in its favor stands at about 50 percent — has yet to prove capable of actually doing its job. Moreover, if the North Koreans do go ahead with a test, it's not clear that their missile would have the range to put it within striking distance of the land-based interceptor missiles the U.S. has stationed in California and Alaska. The U.S. could try using a sea-launched missile to strike the Korean rocket in its boost phase, shortly after launching, when it presents an easier target. But technical risks aside, the political risks involved in such an action against a regime as unpredictable as Pyongyang may make it prohibitive if the object is simply stopping a potentially harmless test.

Just as the U.S. missile-defense system has yet to prove itself effective, so too have Washington's policies for dealing with a reclusive regime to which the threat of international isolation appears to mean little. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed that a missile test would be a provocation. "I can assure everyone that it would be taken with utmost seriousness," she warned, although she did not specify what consequence might result. The U.S. would consult with its allies on the next step, she said. Those other parties to the talks certainly share the U.S. alarm at the prospect of a North Korea test — Japan warned that if the missile fell on its territory, it would be regarded as an attack (although it later softened that position), while South Korea urged its neighbor not to "put a friend in danger" by firing a missile, and China called for calm. But it's not clear that any possible consequences would substantially alter North Korea's cost-benefit analysis — if, indeed, its purpose is to actually test a missile rather than simply extort new diplomatic concessions.

Western economic sanctions mean comparatively little to an economy already largely isolated; and the two countries on which Pyongyang substantially depends, China and South Korea, have long made clear that they have no intention of putting a serious economic squeeze on Pyongyang, for fear that it would topple the regime and spread chaos across the Korean peninsula. Still, China values its ties with the U.S., even as that relationship becomes strained by geopolitical conflicts of interest, and it is therefore reportedly furious at North Korea's tactics. Quiet pressure from Beijing may be the best bet for restraining the North Koreans, but even that is far from a sure thing.

If Pyongyang's game is diplomatic brinkmanship — and the pattern of previous North Korean tactics suggests that the missile threat may indeed be a negotiating ploy — North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il may also be aware that actually going ahead with a missile test (rather than simply dangling the threat of doing so) could weaken rather than strengthen his bargaining position. That's because North Korea has profited diplomatically from the view in Beijing and Seoul that the impasse in the six-party process is as much a result of the Bush Administration's hard line as of Pyongyang's recalcitrance.

A missile test could destroy South Korea's strategy of engagement with the North, and force China to distance itself from Pyongyang. Even if its simply freezes the current status quo, that dashes any hope of a breakthrough that would improve the regime's prospects of reviving its sclerotic economy. Kim Jong-Il may, however, believe that a missile test — or simply the threat of it — will create a crisis that will, as it has repeatedly since 1994, force the great powers to deal with North Korea in ways that ultimately reward his brinkmanship.