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N. Korean tests leave U.S. with few options

North Korea is often called the most secretive, unpredictable and potentially dangerous regime in the world. That's what makes it so hard to decide what to do about the launch of seven missiles, including one that potentially could hit the U.S. West Coast.

Although the United States probably could destroy most North Korean weapons sites, any military action might prompt retaliation against the thousands of American soldiers and civilians in neighboring South Korea and Japan.

Any additional economic sanctions are unlikely to have much effect on a country where many of the 22-million people already live on the edge of starvation.

And the so-called "six party'' talks aimed at getting North Korea to renounce its nuclear program have led nowhere, as two of the six - China and South Korea - pursue their own strategies in dealing with Kim Jong Il's regime.

That leaves few options for the United States except to do what the Bush administration has long resisted: engaging in direct one-on-one talks with a nation it deems part of the "Axis of Evil.''

"My criticism of the administration is that for over five years it has confused engagement with appeasement,'' says P.J. Crowley, an expert on national defense at the Center for American Progress.

"There's nothing wrong with sitting down with an odious regime, if for no other reason than to tell them what they're doing wrong. In the short term, I don't suspect there will be opportunity (to talk) - now that they've behaved badly, you don't want to reward it - but at some point the answer is to get back to meaningful engagement that creates an opening for reform.''

This week's missile launches clearly were a show of force, although the failure of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile seconds after takeoff suggests North Korea does not yet pose a serious threat to the United States.

That doesn't mean Americans shouldn't worry, experts warn.

The North Koreans are advanced enough to eventually perfect the missile, which they could then sell to other countries just as they have already sold shorter-range missiles to Iran, Pakistan and Yemen. Indeed, weapons sales have become North Korea's main export because it has almost nothing else to offer the world.

"When it is fully demonstrated, the Taepodong will be on the open market and their client list reads like a who's who of a rogue state ball,'' says Jon Wolfsthal, an expert on weapons of mass destruction at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"We also have a longer term concern that as they produce more and more plutonium they might even be willing to sell that (for nuclear weapons). You could argue that the more economic sanctions we impose, the greater the likelihood they would feel pressure to sell to anybody.''

North Korea has enough material for five to 10 nuclear bombs of its own and is almost surely trying to develop nuclear warheads that would fit on the Taepodong or other missiles. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post last month, former Secretary of Defense William Perry said the United States should destroy the Taepodong as it sat on its pad awaiting what turned out to be Tuesday's launch.

"Intervening before mortal threats to U.S. security can develop is surely a prudent policy,'' wrote Perry, who served under President Clinton. "A successful Taepodong launch, unopposed by the United States, its intended victim, would only embolden North Korea even further.''

Other experts, however, say North Korea's nuclear program is spread out over enough sites, including some underground, that it would be hard to completely destroy it.

And, they warn, even a limited U.S. attack would infuriate the regime and possibly spark a war like the 1950-53 conflict that killed more than 2-million, including 54,000 Americans, and led to the division between north and south.

Perry's suggestion "was dead wrong,'' says Jonathan Pollack, professor of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "To assume that North Korea would refrain from any kind of retaliation is incredibly short-sighted. It's also highly unrealistic that there is a quick, easy military fix. You would think the United States had learned at this point that there ain't no such beast.''

Pollack speculates that the North Koreans are developing their weapons primarily as a deterrent, noting there is "zippo trust'' between them and the one nation they fear the most. Since the Korean War a half century ago, North Korea has generally "been very careful about not doing things that are likely to provoke the United States,'' Pollack says.

In that vein, most experts think the missile launches - six of which came as America celebrated its birthday and triumphant return to space - were a clumsy attempt to grab President Bush's attention and resume a long-stalled dialogue between the two countries.

Bush has resisted bilateral talks, both to deny North Korea equal footing with the United States and also from a belief that any negotiations should include neighboring South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. But North Korea dropped out of the six party talks last year and the talks have been in limbo as the regime restarted its nuclear program.

"I don't want to say six party is all for show, but it really never sustained much momentum for very long,'' Pollack says. "Everybody else except the United States has a separate channel to the North. It's kind of ironic.''

China is North Korea's closest ally, providing the country with much of its fuel and food. South Korea also contributes massive aid to the North and, to U.S. dismay, has tried to improve relations. Athletes from the two countries marched behind the same flag at the Winter Olympics this year.

So far, both China and South Korea have been tepid in their response to the missile launches, reluctant to cause a crisis that might provoke North Korea into military action or create a huge flow of refugees into neighboring countries.

Though North Korea has offered in the past to scrap its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and economic help, no one knows if the "Dear Leader'' - as Kim Jong Il is known to his people - would ever relinquish the military capabilities that keep him in power. But most experts think the United States has nothing to lose - and much to gain - by talking directly to the North Koreans.

"Unfortunately, the process has been largely frozen and this status quo has worked against us in terms of North Korea restarting its nuclear program and now restarting its missile program,'' says Crowley of the Center for American Progress.

"The regime has sold everything it has ever developed - these are its only cash crops. At some point a change in status only becomes possible with some sort of meaningful engagement.''

Susan Martin can be contacted at


LOCATION: Eastern Asia, northern half of the Korean Peninsula bordering the Korean Bay and the Sea of Japan, between China and South Korea.

POPULATION: 22-million.

ETHNIC GROUPS: Racially homogeneous; there is a small Chinese community and a few ethnic Japanese.

RELIGIONS: Traditionally Buddhist and Confucianist, some Christian and syncretic Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way). Autonomous religious activities are now almost nonexistent; government-sponsored religious groups exist to provide illusion of religious freedom.

GOVERNMENT: Communist state one-man dictatorship.

LEADER: Kim Jong Il, 64, who took power after his father and North Korean founder, Kim Il Sung died in 1994 at the age of 82. He controls the 1.1-million-strong People's Army and has a "military-first" policy, supporting the fourth-largest military in the world. At 5 feet 3 and 187 pounds, he wears platform shoes and a bouffant hairstyle to appear taller. South Koreans who have met him described him as a heavy drinker who could down a mug of cognac in a gulp.

CAPITAL: Pyongyang.

INDEPENDENCE: Aug. 15, 1945 (from Japan). An independent kingdom for much of its long history, Korea was occupied by Japan in 1905 after the Russo-Japanese War, and five years later Japan annexed the entire peninsula.

CLIMATE: Temperate with rainfall concentrated in summer.

NATURAL RESOURCES: Coal, lead, tungsten, zinc, graphite, magnesite, iron ore, copper, gold, pyrites, salt, fluorspar, hydropower.

Sources: World Factbook, Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers.