On the spot, but untroubled


Alaska: The U.S. northwest frontier got used to being in the Soviet Union's cross hairs, so rumbling from North Korea stirs little anxiety.

March 13, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -The view from here is less tranquil nowadays, with North Korea test-firing missiles and making nuclear noises just a short hop over the Pacific while the rest of the world is preoccupied with Iraq.

Just 3,700 miles away - not a huge distance in missile terms - North Korea has an untested ballistic missile capable of reaching the western United States, U.S. intelligence officials say. That includes Alaska, with its 800-mile oil pipeline and four major military bases employing more than 17,300 members of the armed forces.

While military officials do not consider Alaska more of a target than other U.S. regions, threats from the East are felt more acutely here in the northwesternmost state, which spent 50 years on a front line of defense against the former Soviet Union.

In the months ahead, military activity here is expected to intensify as the Bush administration puts its new missile defense system - based at Fort Greely - on a fast track in response to North Korean belligerence.

On Monday, North Korea tested an anti-ship cruise missile, and U.S. offiicals have predicted tests of other, long-range missiles.

"Right now, any of our 50 states are vulnerable to a long-range missile strike because we have no defense against a strike," says Rick Lehner, spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency. The interceptors being built at Fort Greely will not only protect Alaska, he says, "they're designed to defend against an attack on Kansas City."

Given the times, you might expect Alaskans to be organizing duck-and-cover drills. But they hardly seem worried at all.

More commonly, people here scoff at the recent blustering of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, whose military maneuvers are seen as attempts to pressure Washington into direct talks.

"He may be dumb, but I don't know if he's that dumb," says Dennis Prendeville, a businessman. "If they were to send a missile over here, they're cooked. Done. There wouldn't be anything left to their country."

It hardly caused a ripple last week when a rumor surfaced in the press, originally in the Korea Times, that fragments of a North Korean missile warhead had been found in Alaska. The rumor turned out to be bogus - but the public barely reacted, says Alaskan Command spokesman Dick Devlin.

North Korea, which wants a nonaggression treaty and economic aid from the United States, has conducted two missile tests recently.

Pyongyang is believed to have one or two nuclear bombs and a three-stage Taepodong missile, which could carry a payload of several hundred pounds to targets 9,300 miles away, meaning it could hit all of North America, according to an unclassified U.S. intelligence estimate released by the CIA in 2001.

But experts have doubts about the missile's accuracy.

In 1998, North Korea tried to test the three-stage version of an earlier model of the Taepodong, but it failed, splashing into the ocean several hundred miles from Alaska.

A two-stage Taepodong missile, which would be easier to use, might be able to reach Alaska or Hawaii, the 2001 report said.

Living on a front line of the nation's defense system is not new to Alaska, which - because of its proximity to the former Soviet Union and its northern location - has been uniquely suited to intercept missiles traveling over the North Pole.

During the Cold War, the state became host to an anti-aircraft radar system, which evolved with the arms race into an early warning system for ballistic missiles in the 1960s and today is augmented by satellites.

Fort Greely, 100 miles south of Fairbanks, is still home to one of the military's most extensive cold weather training and testing labs, trying out everything from jackets to bombs.

"The North Korean threat is nothing compared to the Russians," says Neal Fried, a labor economist for the state. "We're used to the idea of being a potential target, being close to the Soviet Union."

The missile defense system, designed to detect, intercept and destroy incoming ballistic missiles, has been controversial since Ronald Reagan proposed it in the 1980s. Critics say it is too unreliable to justify the cost.

In the wake of Kim Jong Il's recent military exercises, Bush says he wants to skip the required testing procedures and have the first interceptors in place by next year.

That means a flurry of action for Fort Greely, a base that had nearly shut down when the Bush administration made it the research site for testing the technology that destroys missiles, and the nearby town of Delta Junction. The plan is to have six missiles at Fort Greely and four at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, then to expand the Alaska site by 10 in 2005.

Defense systems will also be placed on ships, allowing the interception of medium-range missiles anywhere in the world.

Environmentalist groups have protested the program, but among the general public there is little opposition to the idea of missile defense testing in their back yard.

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