Pyongyang plans fourth of July fireworks
By Donald Kirk
WASHINGTON - American officialdom from the White House to the Pentagon is
primed for July 4 fireworks this weekend in the form of the test-firing by
North Korea of a long-range Taepodong-2 missile with a potential range as far
as Hawaii and Alaska - and even the US west coast.
No one really thinks, however, that the United States will go for the military
option and try to down the missile mid-flight, even though this would be the
first such test since North Korea
aroused cries of outrage for firing a Taepodong-2 on April 5.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said US forces on Hawaii are gearing up for
defense against any attack, but such talk has a rhetorical ring. The question
will be whether North Korean technicians have worked out how to fire the
missile longer than 3,200 kilometers, the distance covered by the missile of
April 5. That's still less than half the distance to Hawaii, which is 7,200
The fear remains, however, that the North Koreans will eventually figure out
how to fire the missile all the way to Hawaii or Alaska and possibly the US
west coast. All they have to do then is learn how to tip the missile with a
weapon of mass destruction - either nuclear, chemical or biological.
The explosive strength of North Korea's nuclear test on May 25 has been
estimated at four kilotons, or one-fifth the 20-kiloton dimensions of the
atomic bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945. This
is much larger than the half-kiloton scale of the first North Korean test in
October 2006. In this case, however, small is good.
"A normal first-generation test is 20-kilotons," said Mark Fitzpatrick, a
non-proliferation expert at London's International Institute for Strategic
Studies, "but for them small is good". That's because North Korean forces won't
possibly be able to deliver a nuke by air and need one that's small enough for
an intercontinental ballistic missile to carry to its target.
While they are bracing for another long-range North Korean missile test, US
officials do not seem to have any idea what to do about it. The White House,
Pentagon and State Department have all responded with studied non-concern to
the test on Thursday of four short-range missiles that flew about 96 kilometers
off the North Korea's east coast. North Korea has tested these kinds of
missiles many times.
Now the United States is hoping for a "coordinated response" from China, Russia
and Japan as well as the US to the next long-range missile test. Officials
dream of a scenario in which all the countries closest to North Korea, whatever
differences they have with each other, agree on a course of action strong
enough to persuade the North that the penalties for such tests far outweigh any
knowledge gained from conducting them.
The problem is that no one really knows how to give an impression of firmness
without risking a huge escalation of tensions, much less a war. The best hope
may lie in economic sanctions designed to make North Korea a pariah state with
which no reputable institution would have international financial dealings.
With that goal in mind, the US Treasury Department has come up with what may be
a far more effective measure - listing 17 North Korean banks with which foreign
institutions should not do business.
The idea is to isolate North Korea in accordance with the sanctions adopted by
the United Nations Security Council after North Korea's nuclear test. The
Treasury Department has also singled out a firm in Iran through which Iran paid
for North Korean weapons, including missiles and nuclear expertise.
These measures suggest the US means business when it comes to stopping
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The US no longer appears willing
to compromise, to yield for the type of false reconciliation that was worked
out by Christopher Hill, former US nuclear envoy and now US ambassador to Iraq.
One reason for such tough action is that North Korea has been desperate of late
to give an impression of power far beyond the capability of a defense
establishment that's huge numerically but short on supplies.
Non-proliferation expert Fitzpatrick, a former US diplomat, has a good idea
why. "There's more than a coincidence in timing in the illness of Kim Jong-il
and the new hardline posture of the government," he told Asia Times Online.
"They're trying to give the military what it wants."
Fitzpatrick traces the hard line back to last September when North Korea
refused to put in writing all that it had agreed in six-party talks about
inspections and verification of compliance with the agreements to give up its
nukes. In the end, Hill's elaborate diplomacy, including the removal of North
Korea from the State Department's list of sponsors of terrorism, counted for
North Korea in recent weeks has acted tougher than ever, saying it will "never"
return to the six-party talks, which include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea
and the US. It has argued that it needs to build up its nuclear arsenal "to
buttress deterrence", and has boasted that it's developing nuclear warheads
with uranium at their core in addition to the plutonium warheads fabricated at
its Yongbyon facility.
At the same time, said Fitzpatrick, "They are worried the succession has to be
in place as soon as possible." As reports spread that Kim may have suffered a
relapse, attention focuses on his third son, Kim Jong-un, who is still in his
20s and could obviously be a foil for the generals behind the throne.
The new Treasury Department "advisory", as it's called, will no doubt inspire
more fiery rhetoric from Pyongyang. Certainly, the impact will be to isolate
Pyongyang more than ever. Its effectiveness, however, is far from clear.
Much depends on whether China and Russia will do more than pay lip service to
the UN sanctions. Chinese merchants can still get around them through trade
along the Yalu and Tumen river borders with North Korea. North Korean
institutions rely on a network of contacts from Beijing to Hong Kong that may
not appear on the radar of US intelligence operatives.
The Treasury Department action is far preferable, however, to any military
option at this stage. The US is hesitant to board a suspicious North Korean
vessel, now apparently on its way to Myanmar, possibly carrying military cargo,
while observing the letter of the UN resolution that says the flag country has
to approve the search.
Obviously, North Korea is not going to agree, and we may never know what's on
board the vessel. Nor has there been any suggestion for blockading North Korean
ports, much less staging the "preemptive strike" that North Korean persists in
saying the US is planning.
Amid concerns about another long-range missile test, the Treasury Department
ruling may be the way to go for now. The US has no desire to go it alone in
drastic action that may risk a second Korean War - one in which China and
Russia, North Korea's allies in the first Korean War, may not support the US.
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.