Friday, March 27, 2009

North Korean missile gambit

New toy for Pyongyang

World keeps gettin' crazier.

The news this morning is that two US warships, the USS McCain and the USS Chafee, are being deployed from their port station in southwestern Japan into the seas around the Korean peninsula. These two ships are destroyers with anti-missile capabilities; their deployment is in response to North Korea's recent announcement that it plans to test-fire a long-range ballistic missile sometime between April 4 and April 8. Experts speculate that the missile would have sufficient range to target points as far away as Alaska.

Rhetoric in the region is highly charged. Japan has stated that it will shoot down the missile if it crosses into Japanese air space. The North Koreans responded by saying they would consider such a move an "act of war." South Korea's Foreign Ministry threatened to go the UN Security Council if the test goes forward. Even Russia called on North Korea to cancel the test.

Secretary of State Clinton, speaking while on a state visit to Mexico, warned, "This provocative [missile test], in violation of the United Nations mandate, will not go unnoticed and there will be consequences." (Hillary is referring to a 2006 UN resolution banning missile tests.)

The Chinese, who are perhaps North Korea's only ally, have been noticeably silent.

The North Koreans claim that the missile test is for a planned communication satellite, and that they are within their rights. But of course, in light of Pyongyang's activity around a nuclear weapons program, other parties are skeptical (to say the least).

It is unclear what the North Koreans hope to gain with this test, beyond, of course, information on the viability of their rocket technology.

The forces and factions that operate within North Korea are, even in the best of times, opaque. But now, with rumors that Kim Jong-Il is in failing health, the degree of uncertainty is higher yet.

Talks with other regional powers (the so-called "Six Party Talks" instigated by Junior and Condi Rice) have faltered and this ploy could be an effort to force all parties back to the negotiating table. North Korea, its population in dire straits, needs food and fuel. And in the past, it has used belligerence to extort concessions out of its adversaries. But it would be exceedingly dangerous to assume that the North Koreans are bluffing.

A quick look at the chess board shows that, at least in military terms, North Korea is in a strong position. It's million-man army is positioned well within artillery range of Seoul and could reduce South Korea's capital to rubble in short order. The 27,000 US service personnel deployed in South Korea serve more as a tripwire than a real tactical obstacle to any serious military effort. South Korea's own military forces are considerable, strong, and well-trained, but dwarfed by their potential adversaries to the north.

Diplomatically, the North Koreans are effectively isolated. But they have been international pariahs for 50 years, so there is little leverage for other nations on that front. There is simply nothing more to take from them with respect to their international reputation. And the government has promoted a siege mentality to its people, inuring them to privation and hardship. (Anything for Dear Leader, the Glory of the People.)

Friendly, helpful North Korean service personnel

If the test goes forward, there is no telling what might happen. If Japan or the United States shoots the missile down, will North Korea make a move militarily? If there is no response to the test, will the North Koreans be encouraged to charge ahead, full blast (heh), with the nuclear weapons program?

The key, of course, is China. Only the Chinese seem to have any leverage at all with Pyongyang. I have to imagine that the phone lines between Washington and Beijing are humming away right now, with State Department officials imploring the Chinese to rein the North Koreans in. And China's own interests would seem to best be served by avoiding a crisis on their northeastern border between their client-state and their biggest trading partners. But Chinese motives are always obscure.

If we were to imagine the various nations in the international community as individuals, North Korea would be the crazy neighbor whose poorly-dressed kids are always hungry; the neighbor who threatens to kill your dog if it sets foot on his unkempt lawn. Well, lately that neighbor has been considering whether or not to buy an automatic assault rifle.

The sane folks in the neighborhood better figure out what they're going to do, if that happens.

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