Monday, July 10, 2006

North Korean Missile Crisis? Suddenly, It Feels Like October 1962 All Over Again

Why Has the White House Raised Such a Ruckus About Iran When North Korea Already Has Nukes -- And the Missiles to Deliver Them?

(Updated 5:30 a.m. EDT Thursday, July 13, 2006)

By Skeeter Sanders

When President Bush first raised the issue of Iran's nuclear technology program back in 2003 -- raising the specter of the Islamic theocracy obtaining nuclear weapons -- a nagging question kept popping up in the mind of this blogger:

"What about North Korea?"

Fast-forward to April of this year. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice strongly urged the United Nations Security Council to consider "strong steps" to induce Tehran to change course in its nuclear ambitions. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed that his country would not back away from uranium enrichment and that the world must treat Iran as a nuclear power.

Again, this blogger could not shake the question that kept nagging at me in the back of my mind -- but was by that time, growing louder and more persistent:

"What about North Korea?"

In the intervening months from 2003 to last April, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its bellicose and unpredictable Communist regime warned again and again that any action by the U.N. -- sanctions, or stronger measures -- against the isolated country over its nuclear program would be considered by Pyongyang an act of war that would prompt swift military retaliation.

And in that same intervening period, North Korea began test-firing short- and medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Neither this blogger nor anyone else can recall Iran doing anything of the similar sort.

Yet when talking about nuclear threats form other nations, the Bush administration kept harping on Iran to the virtual exclusion of other nuclear threats -- and almost to the point of saber-rattling against Tehran -- while hardly uttering a peep about North Korea.

Then on July 4, North Korea shocked the world with a barrage of test-firings of seven ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads -- including, albeit unsuccessfully, a long-range Taepodong-2 ICBM. Now, all of a sudden, the Bush White House is finally paying attention to the much greater nuclear threat that North Korea poses to the world.

On Sunday, Washington turned up the heat on China to, in turn, apply more pressure on North Korea to end its missile tests and return to the six-nation disarmament talks, which have been stalled since November.

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said the aim was to demonstrate that Pyongyang has "no support in the world" and to compel North Korea to return to the talks, aimed at ridding the reclusive Communist nation of its nuclear-weapons program. But Burns again reiterated Washington's rejection of North Korea's demand for direct one-on-one talks between the two countries.

The question is, will the administration's new-found alarm over North Korea's nuclear moves take precedence over Iran's? And does it come too little, too late?

Bush Forced to Fend Off Accusations of Being "Asleep at the Wheel" on North Korea

The president was clearly on the defensive during his daily media briefing last Friday, fending off claims that the regime of North Korea's unpredictable Communist dictator Kim Jong-il poses a far more dangerous nuclear threat to the world than that of Iran's Ahmadinejad.

Bush told reporters that while he didn't know if Pyongyang's Taepodong-2 missile was aimed at Hawaii -- or even if it was capable of reaching that far -- the U.S. would have been able to blast the North Korean missile out of the sky with its anti-missile defense system if it had been necessary to do so.

"I think we had a reasonable chance of shooting it down. At least that's what the military commanders told me," Bush said. "It's new research. It's hard for me to give you a probability of success."

The president became annoyed when asked why, if his policy of primarily seeking diplomatic means to stem Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities were working, was North Korea becoming more aggressive and bellicose. He challenged a reporter's question that cited intelligence reports that North Korea's nuclear capabilities had been growing stronger and more threatening.

"We don't know — maybe you know more than I do — about [North Korea] increasing the number of [its]nuclear weapons," Bush told the reporter. He did acknowledge, however, that Pyongyang in 2003 had repudiated and withdrawn from the 1970 international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and kicked out inspectors from the UN'snt> nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Japan -- And Possibly China -- Losing Patience With Pyongyang

The American nuclear envoy in Beijing said Thursday that Washington was likely to give Chinese diplomatic efforts to halt North Korea's nuclear and missile programs "a few more days" before pursuing a UN resolution.

But Japan isn't willing to wait. Tokyo pressed hard Thursday for a Security Council vote on its resolution threatening sanctions against Pyongyang for its missile tests. For their part, China and Russia introduced a rival resolution, further complicating efforts for a unified international response.

Beijing dropped hints Thursday that it, too, is losing patience with North Korea after Pyongyang apparently rejected overtures by China's nuclear negotiator, Wu Daweint. The Chinese ambassador to the UN, Wang Guangyant, said his country's delegation delivered a message form the Chinese government voicing concern about the missile tests.

He acknowledged, however, that the delegation had not received a response.

Direct Talks Between North and South Korea Collapse

Meanwhile, direct talks between the two Koreas collapsed Thursday, after the North renewed a demand for food aid of a half-million tons of rice but refused to address the missile issue.

Seoul insisted that Pyongyang return to the six-nation talks to resolve the missile crisis. The North's negotiators insisted that the missile issue was irrelevant and blamed Seoul for the breakdown of the North-South talks.

Why North Korea Is More Dangerous Than Iran

Last year, North Korea declared it had nuclear weapons. But no one knows exactly how many N-bombs Pyongyang has, what type they are or whether the North is able to deliver them. American intelligence reports have put the number of North Korean nukes at anywhere between two and 20.

While the U.S. has condemned the missile tests, it has also played down their military importance. "There are attempts to try to describe this almost in breathless World War III terms," said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "This is not such a situation."

Oh, really, Mr. Snow? Better think again.

Lest we forget, the Korean Peninsula is the most militarized place on Earth, with the North and the South still technically at war more than 53 years after the truce that halted the Korean War. South Korea's bustling capital, Seoul -- home to more than 11 million people -- is easily within range of the North's artillery and chemical weapons.

Under a state of siege in effect since 1953, North Korea has an army of almost a million men -- the fifth-largest army in the world -- and is believed to already possess more than 800 ballistic missiles. Its military doctrine focuses on eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula under Kim Jong-il's regime -- not to mention the survival of the North's leadership.

While Bush has branded North Korea part of the "Axis of Evil" in its global "war on terror," the last thing that Washington wants -- let alone its ally in Seoul -- is another war on the peninsula. "It would be a really nasty little place to do business militarily," says Dr. Ronald Huisken of the National University of Australia.

War-game scenarios predict the U.S., with only 38,000 troops stationed in South Korea -- less than a third of the number of American troops now in Iraq -- would suffer thousands of casualties in such a war, while South Korean civilian deaths would be in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

With its arsenal of conventional and nuclear-capable missiles, North Korea poses a much larger threat to a larger number of countries than Iran's leaders can even dream of. Theoretically, North Korea's Taepodong-2 ICBMs, once fully developed and operational, could strike targets as far north as eastern Russia, as far east as Hawaii, as far south as Australia and as far west as India.

Does Iran, by comparison, possess any such missile capability? Consider this: If it did, how long do you think it would be before Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran -- as it did against Iraq in 1981? While Iran lies beyond the flying range of Israeli warplanes, it's not beyond the range of Israel's Jericho missiles.

North Korea a Real-Life Orwellian "1984" State

It's easy to dismiss Kim Jong-il as a lunatic. His is a regime that develops weapons of mass destruction while his people starve, has carried out state-sponsored terrorism -- including the assassinations of four members of the South Korean cabinet in 1983 -- and engages in currency counterfeiting and heroin smuggling.

Paranoia rules in Pyongyang on a par with the fictional totalitarian dictatorship in George Orwell's classic novel 1984. Much like the ever-present telescreens in the novel, all television sets in North Korea have only one channel setting -- That of the government-run channel. It is illegal -- and is punishable by death -- to possess a radio or television set capable of picking up foreign channels.

Log on to the official Web site of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea ( -- if you can get through to it at all -- and you enter a parallel universe. Here you'll find the official histories of the country's "Dear Leader," Comrade Kim Jong-