Missile gap

June 23, 2006

Just for the fun of it, let's imagine that North Korea's Kim Jong Il is a rational leader. He has a nuclear program and an intercontinental ballistic missile program and an antagonist - the United States - that would very much like to see an end to both. That is, the U.S. would like to see an end to both - when it remembers to worry about them.

North Korea may not actually need either. But why give up something for nothing? A rational Mr. Kim (conniving, ruthless, cold-blooded, maybe, but rational, nonetheless) would want to exact as steep a price as he could for his nukes and missiles (or perhaps missile). The problem he faces is that Washington keeps getting distracted, most recently by Iran. So out come the missile and some fuel and suddenly he has the world's attention again.

The Bush administration reacted with alarm at the beginning of the week, but it's hard to know what to make of that. Supposedly, once fueled, the missile had to be launched within 72 hours, but 72 hours came and went without a launch. Japan made a stern pronouncement that drove home just how serious this crisis might turn out to be, by declaring that if the missile were launched and it hit any part of Japan, even (and presumably) by accident, Tokyo would have to consider it an assault. But the next day, the Japanese government announced that it was withdrawing its last troops from Iraq, so it's natural to wonder if Japan was trying to make it up to the U.S. by sounding ferocious on Korea.

On the other hand, a week ago, Russia and China were very much on the same page during a summit of the so-called Shanghai Group in denouncing the U.S., particularly over Iran and Central Asia. It looked as though Moscow and Beijing were succeeding in their pursuit of an energy-driven policy that would be both anti-American and anti-Islamist, and that would encompass a huge swath of Asia. But Korea is a distraction, and a reminder, at least in Moscow, that Russia's interests and China's are not altogether compatible; Russia counseled the North Koreans to back down, but the Chinese have shown much less alarm.

The South Korean government believes the U.S. has been overreacting. Really? In an essay in The Washington Post, William J. Perry, who was defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, called for a pre-emptive strike on the North Korean missile base. His belief is that Mr. Kim is in fact rational - or sufficiently rational to refrain from going to war over such an attack, since North Korea would surely lose. That may be giving the strange North Korean leader too much credit; finding out for sure, in any case, seems like an astonishingly reckless idea.

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