- The Washington Times - Friday, July 7, 2006

North Korea may have gambled — and lost — while playing a game of nuclear missile chicken with the United States.

The reclusive communist state, the only remaining Stalinist regime on the planet, can hardly feed its population. Thousands are reported to starve to death every winter, yet this has not prevented Pyongyang from spending billions of dollars to build a nuclear deterrent, and a delivery system it hopes could reach the continental United States.

But those hopes quickly faded. Six missiles launched Wednesday morning, including a long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, believed to have a range of up to 6,700 kilometers, or 4,163 miles, fell well short of their intended range, splashing down in the sea off the Korean Peninsula a mere 42 seconds after being launched, according to reports from the South Korean capital, Seoul.

It was reported that the North launched a seventh missile later in the day as protests from Washington and Tokyo were made public, and as the United Nations Security Council convened to consider possible punitive actions against North Korea for escalating the arms race.

In Washington, meanwhile, White House Press Secretary Tony Snow called the North Korean action “a provocation.” Yet this is one provocation from which the United States stands to win in a very big way.

This latest move by North Korea will give the United States a golden opportunity to step up its military presence in and around the Pacific area. Following this latest North Korean stunt, Washington should find it relatively easy in convincing Tokyo for the need to strengthen U.S.-Japanese military cooperation. As one analyst put it, Japan could well become the England of the Pacific — an island fortress and a staunch ally of the United States who sees its own security and well-being tied in to a strong — and permanent — American presence in the Pacific region.

Similarly, the Bush administration will make certain to stress the dangers associated with North Korea’s missile maneuvers, emphasizing that Pyongyang is now within reach of Alaska, Hawaii and possibly even the West Coast of the continental United States.

Luckily for North Korea, their missile test flunked. But assume the North Koreans had succeeded; that, in and of itself, would not necessarily mean there is suddenly any real and present danger to the security of the United States given the tremendous imbalance of power between the two countries.

The North Koreans are by nature survivalists and not suicidal. And while their leader, Kim Jong-il, may well suffer from an esprit de grandeur, he nevertheless cannot ignore America’s overwhelmingly dominant nuclear arsenal. Neither can he pretend the United States would hesitate for a New York minute to obliterate the North off the map in the event of a launch on an American, or allied, position.

North Korea was hoping to use the missile launch to pressure the Bush administration into making concessions. Pyongyang had hoped these missile tests would grab Washington’s nuclear attention, which is now entirely preoccupied with Iran. However, the North Korean gambit may now backfire with Washington lining up its allies in the region, stressing the importance of a unified defense. There also is little doubt the United States will profit from the “North Korean excuse” to consolidate its defense against China, too. Another golden opportunity will be to reinforce Taiwan’s defenses. Might as well kill two birds with one stone.

Analysts believe North Korea wanted to deliver a message to Washington and Tokyo that the security of the region could be seriously threatened if the United States does not accept the demands of the North.

The North continues earning large sums of money by selling its missile technology to a number of developing countries. Pyongyang has earned some $1.5 billion annually from exporting its missile technology and spare parts. In past negotiations with the U.S. in 1996-1997, the North demanded that Washington remit $3 billion to compensate for losses it would suffer by suspending missile exports.

But North Korea’s bluff may have been a blunder. The Bush administration will make a point to stress the dangers associated with this latest North Korean proliferation to the U.S. West Coast, not to mention Japan and other Asian countries. North Korea’s gamble will have paid dividend — but to the United States.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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