The North Korean Showdown Ratchets Up

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You Sung-Ho / Reuters

The guided-missile destroyer U.S.S. John S. McCain is docked at a port in Inchon, 25 miles west of Seoul

North Korea would like to test missiles and advance its nuclear program, while smuggling arms to some potentially bad actors for extra cash. The U.S. would like North Korea to stop doing all of these things. Neither side is particularly interested in finding out what happens should the other press the issue. And thus North Korea and the U.S. find themselves in a very strange Kabuki war. Pyongyang is plainly the instigator, continuing its rash of missile and nuclear tests while apparently seeking hard currency by peddling weapons to all buyers. Like automated chess pieces, U.S. military assets have responded by moving into place: to thwart any missile launch, ground-based missile defenses are being deployed to Hawaii, and a nearly $1 billion 10-story, seaborne missile radar has been dispatched to keep an eye peeled for any missile launch from North Korea. It would clearly be a dumb move for North Korea to launch a missile toward the U.S. Its long-range Taepodong 2 has had multiple failures, and even when it works it is limited to a range of only 4,000 miles, about 500 short of Hawaii. (The longest ranging U.S. missile can travel more than 6,000 miles.) But just because it's foolish doesn't mean the North Koreans — hardly a predictable bunch — won't consider it.

As a result, it's been a busy weekend for U.S. intelligence. Spy planes and satellites are monitoring launch preparations at several North Korean launch sites, while other U.S. surveillance platforms are following the progress of the Kang Nam, a North Korean vessel suspected of ferrying banned arms, missiles or nuclear components. The destroyer U.S.S. John S. McCain — named for the father and grandfather of the Arizona Senator, both admirals — is trailing the 2,000-ton vessel. According to South Korean television, the ship is headed to Burma, a nation run by a military dictatorship and a suspected longtime buyer of North Korean weaponry. "If we have hard evidence" that the ship is carrying banned weaponry, Senator John McCain told CBS on Sunday, "I think we should board it."

Under a June 12 U.N. Security Council resolution, the U.S. and its allies can ask Pyongyang for permission to inspect the Kang Nam. But once North Korea refuses — as it is expected to do — all the mighty U.S. military can do under the resolution is inform the U.N. and stand aside while diplomats try to force any nation resupplying the ship to allow inspectors aboard. Pyongyang has said any interception of its shipping would be an "act of war," and declared over the weekend that it would "respond to sanctions with retaliation" including "unlimited retaliatory strikes" against South Korea if it helps apply U.N. sanctions.

The Obama Administration has made it clear it has no desire to negotiate yet again for North Korea's good behavior. Pyongyang has sporadically engaged in such actions for more than a decade, content to use them as levers to win concessions from the international community in exchange for civilized conduct – before abandoning such pledges. Significantly, China – long North Korea's protector – also seems to be growing weary of North Korea's belligerent behavior.

Meanwhile, interceptor missiles in Alaska "are clearly in a position to take action" if Hawaii is threatened, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on June 18. "We do have some concerns, if they were to launch a missile to the west in the direction of Hawaii," he added. "We are in a good position, should it become necessary, to protect Americans and American territory." If a North Korean shot somehow draws close, Marine General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on June 16 that he felt "very comfortable," predicting that existing U.S. missile defenses have a 90% chance of destroying it in flight.

Few Hawaiians, or the tourists on whom the state's economy relies, seem concerned. The state's tourism office told the Associated Press that only a single prospective visitor had called to ask about the threat. "We believe," spokeswoman Marsha Wienert said, "that this is a very safe destination."