N. Korea adds fuel to Asian arms race

October 11, 2006|By David Wood | David Wood,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- In the hours after North Korea said it had detonated a nuclear bomb in an underground test Monday, Northeast Asia seemed quiet. But the quiet was deceptive.

The warships of two heavily armed U.S. Navy expeditionary strike groups are on station in the South China Sea and in the waters off Okinawa, where about 14,500 Marines are stationed within range of North Korean missiles. The United States is installing Patriot missile interceptors on Okinawa under a new agreement with Japan.

Japan is upgrading its armed forces, investing in aerial refueling tankers that would enable its high-performance jets to take on long-range strike missions. Japan also is doubling its spending on ballistic missile defense, linking it with a U.S. Navy missile defense system in the waters off North Korea.

China is building hundreds of land- attack cruise missiles and is deploying about 100 new medium-range ballistic missiles a year. Among other military projects, it is building a new class of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine and nuclear attack submarines.

South Korea has its armed forces on alert and reportedly is shopping for U.S. Patriot missile interceptors.

All of that activity was in motion before North Korea's announcement Monday. Some of it, including the U.S. warships on patrol, reflects decades-old practices. Others, such as the accelerated work on missile defenses, has been undertaken in recent months in response to North Korea's work on its missile forces and nuclear weapons.

All of Northeast Asia, encompassing North and South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, has long been heavily militarized, not with the small arms and deadly suicide bombs of Iraq, but rather with huge armies, fortified and mined borders and heavy, long-range weapons systems.

During the Cold War, as the nuclear-armed United States, Soviet Union and, eventually, China jostled, they also held each other in a nuclear deterrent stand-off.

North Korea's apparent entry into that nuclear club has destabilized that dynamic, with results that are unclear, analysts said.

The entire region "is wired with tension, the most dangerous place in the world in the sense that it's a place where all the great powers could wind up getting in a war," said Ellis Krauss, professor of Japanese politics at the University of California, San Diego.

North Korea's reclusive and unpredictable leader, Kim Jong Il, has given no clue about whether he intends to use his supposed nuclear power as a threat or a deterrent. But many analysts said more tension could lie ahead.

"He is one weird dude, but he knows exactly that each of the major powers is restrained from doing anything against him," said Krauss. "If he goes down, a lot of other people are going to get hurt. In some ways, he is the ultimate suicide bomber."

A senior North Korean official was quoted by the official Yonghap news agency yesterday as saying that the government might fire a nuclear missile at the United States, depending "on how the U.S. acts." The official was not identified.

In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice responded curtly: "I think the North Koreans know that firing a missile would, shall we say, not be a good idea."

As a safeguard, however, the United States has been working "as fast as we can" to expand and upgrade the Navy's Aegis missile defense system, Adm. William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said recently.

The system, which uses sophisticated shipboard radar to track missiles and SM-3 missile interceptors to shoot them down, is deployed on the USS Shiloh, based in Yokosuka, Japan.

By the end of the year, the Navy plans to deploy in the Pacific five additional ships with tracking and shoot-down capability, which would give it a fleet of three cruisers and three destroyers.

The Navy's goal is to have 16 ships in the missile defense system based in the Pacific within three years.

Navy Rear Adm. Brad Hicks, director of the Aegis program, said recently that the system can engage enemy missiles launched from up to about 800 miles away. To illustrate the range, a Pentagon official said yesterday that a missile launched from Chicago could be shot down by an Aegis cruiser in Baltimore's harbor; the intercept would take place about 100 miles over Pittsburgh.

The United States and Japan are working jointly on a more powerful missile interceptor with a range of about 6,200 miles, designed to be used against intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Those initiatives and others by the U.S. military are designed, in part, to shield Japan and South Korea, both close U.S. allies, from being forced to develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent. As long as Seoul and Tokyo feel confident of U.S. protection, they can safely remain non-nuclear powers.

Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said in a carefully worded statement yesterday that despite North Korea's apparent nuclear test, " there will be no change in our non-nuclear arms principles."

That might not be the final word. There are growing suspicions that North Korea's test was largely a fizzle, that an intended detonation of a multikiloton bomb resulted in a much smaller explosion because of a design fault.

If so, it would be the second major failure of a strategic weapon test. North Korea's new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2, fell into the Sea of Japan on July 4 when its motor failed barely 40 seconds into flight.

It is widely thought that those failures will spur North Korea to greater efforts, keeping tensions in the region high.

"The North Koreans will keep trying to make the bomb work and make the missiles work," said Stan Norris, a senior weapons analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a think tank in Washington. "Now that they've crossed the [nuclear] threshold, they may feel the need for another test, and that one may precipitate more reaction from the Japanese."

david.wood@baltsun.com

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