Few Moves Left With N. Korea

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration has limited options to prevent North Korea from test-firing a multistage missile that could reach U.S. interests in the Pacific.

In many ways, a missile deployment could constitute grounds for a preemptive attack, such as an airstrike against North Korea. But that is unlikely to be considered a serious option given the U.S. entanglement in Iraq and objections from China.

China and Russia’s ties to North Korea also make it unlikely that the United Nations Security Council could inflict meaningful punishment on the regime in Pyongyang. South Korea has signaled it would not go along with efforts to economically isolate its estranged neighbor in retaliation for a launch.

The Bush administration already has measures in place to stanch the flow of illicit money to Pyongyang through offshore banks in Macao and to block North Korean shipping. Yet the North Korean regime continues to thumb its nose at the U.S. campaign against weapons of mass destruction.


Since September, it has boycotted six-party talks aimed at dismantlement of its nuclear program, and the coaxing and threatening from the United States have been to little avail.

“Kim Jong Il is calling the Bush administration’s bluff,” said Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea specialist with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey. “The U.S. is already doing everything it can do in terms of economic pressure.”

For weeks, U.S., Japanese and South Korean intelligence satellites have observed trucks delivering missile parts and fuel to the Musudan-ri missile base on North Korea’s east coast. The North has made no effort to conceal the activities.

The new missile seems to be a souped-up version of the Taepodong 1, which North Korea tested in 1998. That launch demonstrated that the country, despite its impoverishment, had far more sophisticated technology than anyone thought.

The missile -- called the Taepodong 2 -- is thought to be capable of reaching U.S. bases in Japan, the U.S. territory of Guam and possibly Alaska or Hawaii.

North Korea’s nuclear program has been up and running since 2002, when Pyongyang pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The CIA now believes the country has enough fissile material for eight to 10 nuclear weapons.

Although North Korea probably cannot yet mount a nuclear warhead on a missile, most experts believe it is working rapidly to develop such capabilities.

“If there ever was a case in which preemption would be logical, it would be this moment -- but this is not where the political priorities are of the Bush administration right now,” said a U.S.-based North Korea analyst who asked not to be quoted by name.

He contrasted the position of the U.S. and Japan in this situation with the airstrikes Israel made in 1981 to destroy an Iraqi nuclear plant under construction.

“If Japan were Israel, you know what would happen,” the analyst said.

But when asked whether the United States would shoot down a missile, J. Thomas Schieffer, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, said in Tokyo today, “The U.S. has options available to it that it did not have in the past, and these options are on the table.” He did not elaborate.

The U.S. hesitancy has a lot to do with horrific memories of the 1950-53 Korean War, in which China and the U.S. fought over the Korean peninsula at a cost of more than a million deaths and a ravaged land.

South Koreans are particularly fearful, and officials have had little to say publicly other than bland admonishments against a missile test, while privately downplaying the threat.

“If there is a missile test, the South Koreans will carry on business as usual,” said Kim Tae-woo, a South Korean analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. “They will not participate in any international effort to isolate North Korea.”

North Korean officials have reportedly told the South that the missile is a civilian experiment designed to put a satellite into orbit. They made the same claim in 1998 after a test of a Taepodong 1 missile over Japan.

Although the U.S. is unlikely to buy the story, the ambiguity might be enough to muddle the debate over retaliatory action.

Given the limited options, the Bush administration is stuck taking the same tack it has in the wrangling over North Korea’s nuclear program -- asking China to lean on Pyongyang.

President Bush is believed to have called Chinese President Hu Jintao at least once over the last month because of the missile test. Almost all of North Korea’s trade comes through China, making it the only country with real economic clout in this case.

Tokyo also has limited economic leverage over North Korea, leaving it with little to threaten other than asking for U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Most of Japan’s actions appear aimed at voters at home, where there is simmering anger over the kidnappings of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s by North Korean security services. The Japanese government Friday passed a law requiring economic sanctions against Pyongyang if no progress is made on resolving questions about the fate of those abductees still believed to be missing.

After the 1998 missile launch, many threats were voiced against North Korea with little result.

President Clinton circumvented objections from Congress a few months afterward to fund a program to supply North Korea with heavy fuel oil. When Kim Jong Il agreed to a missile-testing moratorium the following year and again in 2002, North Korea received aid from Japan.

Andrei Lankov, a North Korea scholar based in Seoul, notes that North Korea’s missile-testing moratorium has since expired and that there may be little in international law to prevent Pyongyang from doing a test launch.

He advises that the Bush administration’s best bet in a no-win situation might be to “ignore the North Koreans.”

“Too much of a fuss will only make things worse,” Lankov said.


Times staff writer Bruce Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this report.