Wednesday, July 05, 2006

North Korea's Fourth of July

Apparently inspired by all the bottlerockets we Americans were preparing to send skyward, North Korea launched seven missiles yesterday.

After firing six missiles over four hours early Wednesday, North Korea continued its unprecedented series of tests by sending a seventh into the Sea of Japan some 12 hours later during rush hour in Japanese cities.

Most of the missiles were known short-range weapons. They weren't test flights; they were demonstrations of North Korea's missile capacity.

One of the missiles was the new Taepodong-2, which some analysts fear can hit the United States.

But the missile considered most dangerous to the United States -- the long-range Taepodong-2 potentially capable of hitting targets on the U.S. West Coast -- appeared to fail on its first test flight after only 35 seconds and before it entered the second of two-stages, dealing a blow to the North Korean missile program, Japanese and U.S. officials said.

Before we go much farther, let's put some of these worries into perspective. The estimated range of the Taepodong-2 is thought to be between 2,500 and 2,800 miles. That's not far enough to hit the United States. There is worry that future versions of the missile could have extra stages that would boost the range to as much as 5,600 miles. But what all that boils down to is that we have no real idea of the missile's range, and it poses no current threat.

Second, while the missile exploding is better news than a successful test flight, North Korea would still have gotten useful telemetry out of it. The data they glean from the failure will increase the odds of success the next time they test it.

On the other hand, the failure could show the deterioration of North Korea's missile program:

Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank with ties to the Pentagon, said the failure of the first stage of the Taepodong-2 missile -- after working in 1998 -- could underscore that North Korea "hadn't done much with this missile in ten years."

"The possible bright spot is maybe they're really losing their edge. Of course, errors do happen. And it's not impossible that this was just a technical glitch, and they could put another one on the launch pad in a month, let's say," Goure said.

Of course, a conspiracy theorist might consider the possibility that North Korea blew up the missile intentionally. I'm not sure why they would do that, but with North Korea it's best not to rule out such things.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council is meeting to discuss the development (with China resisting strong measures and even South Korea opposing economic sanctions), Japan has imposed limited sanctions and just about everybody is condemning the launches.

So what does it mean? I'm inclined to consider it an Ann Coulter-like cry for attention, a bid for direct talks with the United States. That seems a bit pointless on one level: I wouldn't expect such talks to produce anything useful, given North Korea's past willingness to ignore treaties and agreements. But perhaps they think such talks might lead to U.S. concessions, and maybe they just want the prestige of being treated seriously by the United States.

As long as North Korea remains under China's wing, there's little serious pressure we can bring to bear. On the plus side, North Korea continues to be more buffoon than bear, wanting to be taken seriously but not truly interested in igniting a shooting war or doing anything that will cause China to withdraw support.

In the end I'm less worried about North Korea's own missiles than I am about their eagerness to sell their missiles and technology to anyone who wants them (hey, maybe that's what this was: a sales demonstration). It's bad enough for one crazy dictator to have such weapons; it's worse when he shares them with the other crazy dictators.

The one meaningful sanction we might try imposing is a ban on North Korea missile sales. That would hit them in their hard-currency soft spot, and also allow us to legally intercept shipments like the one that got away back in 2002.

After that, we can get back to worrying about their claims to have nuclear weapons.

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