N. Korea Is Immune to ‘Star Wars’

Frank Gibney, president of the Pacific Basin Institute, is professor of politics at Pomona College and the author of "The Pacific Century" and other books on Asia and foreign policy.

Sometimes, bad guys play into your hands. That’s probably why Donald Rumsfeld and his fellow hard-liners welcomed North Korea’s first big-time missile launching in 1998. But what if the bad guy may be changing for the better?

Six years ago, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il’s hard-pressed engineers attempted to send a long-range ballistic missile into space. Apart from scaring South Korea and Japan, the Taepo Dong missile test was not a huge success: Its vital third stage malfunctioned, and observers were highly skeptical that the North Koreans could deploy the missile as a weapon any time soon. Yet, Rumsfeld (who had served earlier as Defense secretary), congressional Republicans and their neoconservative academic friends found the new North Korean threat ample excuse for breathing new life into a long-troubled U.S. antiballistic missile program.

The idea of a missile defense system has been around since the early Cold War days, but attempts to build one encountered huge technical and financial obstacles. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, popularly known as “Star Wars,” gave the idea new momentum. But when the United States lost its chief Cold War enemy, antimissile system enthusiasts turned their attention to “rogue nations” that might want to lob a missile at the U.S. From 1983 to 1999, the United States spent no less than $60 billion on the project, with precious little to show for it.

In 1998, Rumsfeld headed a congressional commission to investigate the danger posed by “rogue” missile programs such as North Korea’s, and when he was named Defense secretary for a second time, he made antimissile defense a top priority. President Bush’s budget for next year includes more than $10 billion for the project, more than is allotted for any other military program.


In July, the program’s first ground-based interceptor missile was placed in its silo at Ft. Greely, Alaska, southeast of Fairbanks. More are promised. “These achievements,” Rumsfeld declared, “represent the triumph of hope and vision over pessimism and skepticism.”

Just how much of an achievement is highly debatable. According to the Pentagon’s testing service, the hardware is being prematurely deployed. Put simply, you can’t test if you don’t know what you should be testing. In March, 49 retired generals and admirals asked Bush to suspend work on the antimissile project and instead use the resources to secure dangerous nuclear materials abroad and upgrade homeland defenses affecting ports and sea lanes, likely terrorist targets. Their plea went unheeded. No matter what, Bush and Rumsfeld seemed determined to deploy a complex and costly antimissile system without evidence that it could ever work. Talk about faith-based technology.

But there’s another problem. There is scant likelihood that Kim’s Taepo Dong missile will ever be fired. It’s too useful as a threat. North Korea’s leaders, for all their brutalities, are not jihadists. Smart and calculating, they know armed conflict with the U.S. would result in their country’s destruction. In fact, they have been rapidly expanding their contacts with the outside world: North Korea now has embassies in 41 countries, twice the number it had three years ago.

Furthermore, the country, following the Chinese model, is taking steps toward a market economy. Despite its habitual propaganda blustering, North Korea is expanding economic ties with South Korea and talking about normalizing relations with Japan.

Still, the North Korean population remains docile and brainwashed. Refugees from the famine-stricken North arriving in South Korea tend to be dazed and confused, unable to cope with the freedoms of a modern democracy. All of which suggests that Kim’s outreach strategy is to ensure survival, not to lay the groundwork for aggression.

After junking the trade-offs with Pyongyang negotiated by the Clinton administration, Bush has relied on six-power talks to try to persuade North Korea to suspend its ambitious nuclear program. But things haven’t worked out his way. Four of the powers -- China, South Korea, Russia and Japan -- have begun to criticize America’s stubborn refusal to negotiate an aid-for-disarmament package.

For three years, Kim’s regime had sought direct negotiations with the United States on the fate of its nuclear program, in part because it was frightened by Bush’s “axis of evil” talk and invasion of Iraq. Halting the North Korean nuclear effort was a real possibility. But when Bush finally approved bilateral talks, he insisted that the North Koreans disarm as a precondition. For Kim, that was the deal-breaker.

At the moment, Pyongyang shows no signs of coming back to the negotiating table. With the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kim probably senses no immediate danger of a U.S. attack.


But there are powerful reasons for Washington to resume the long-proposed trade-offs of aid and energy supplies in return for North Korea halting its nuclear buildup. While the Bush administration puts off serious talks, North Korean technicians continue to turn out fissionable materials. They probably have enough to produce six nuclear weapons. Worse yet, the regime is only too happy to make under-the-counter sales to Iran and terrorist groups. In Pyongyang, the Taepo Dong and similar missiles are called the “dollar cash box.” Their export earns Kim an estimated $600 million annually.

The distressing alternative, which Bush, Rumsfeld and company seem intent on following, is to toss $40 billion or so more over the next five years at an antimissile system that would have a 1-in-1,000 chance of knocking out a Taepo Dong missile that has a 1-in-1,000 chance of ever being fired.