- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Fifty-six years ago this month, the North Korean army marched into South Korea, surprising the world and starting a bloody three-year war between the United States and China. Since then, more shocks have shown that surprises are the norm and we must prepare for them.

We were surprised by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Soviet Sputnik, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and more recently the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. While it is impossible to predict the next surprise, there are places that deserve watching. More than 50 years after starting the Korean War, North Korea remains a major trouble spot, erratic and unpredictable, and worth watching.

The North claims to have produced its own nuclear weapons and only needs to know how to make them small enough to fit into warheads. But with foreign help that should not take long. North Korea also has been spreading missiles, parts and technology around the world to Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

North Korea created a major surprise in 1998 when it launched a Taepodong multistage missile over Japan. That showed its ability to build a missile that could put an object in orbit, or send a warhead across the ocean. This was a giant step. It is not that difficult to further increase the range.

Even though the North has not tested such a missile since 1998, it is running an active development program that includes ground tests working toward a Taepodong-3, a longer-range version of the missile tested eight years ago. It is expected to be a true intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the entire continental United States.

Other missiles are being developed. On March 8, the North launched three short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan. Gen. Burwell Bell III, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, said this was a “quantum leap,” because for the first time the North showed it had solid-fuel rockets, which are more reliable and easier to handle than the liquid-fuel kind.

The new missile is believed derived from the Soviet SS-21, a solid-fuel mobile missile with a range of 60-70 miles and considered highly accurate. That makes it a threat to Seoul and anything within 50 miles of the border. The North already has about 600 Scuds aimed at South Korea, and 200 Nodongs with enough range to reach most of Japan and U.S. bases there.

Since mid-May, there have been reports of activity at launch sites in North Korea. Press reports claim a large ballistic missile more than 100 feet long, suspected of being a new model Taepodong-2 or the longer-range Taepodong-3, was transported to a test area, where activity suggests preparations for a flight test. Later, a Scud was reported at a different launch site, causing concern in Tokyo since North Korea is believed to be developing an extended-range Scud-ER capable of reaching Japan.

But now it has been more than three weeks since the first reports and still there has been no launch. North Korea knows its launch activities are seen by satellites, so Pyongyang may just be trying to pressure the U.S. and its allies for concessions and aid. The North currently is mad at the U.S. for applying financial restrictions because of its counterfeiting of U.S. $100 bills.

On the other hand, there may be a surprise launch. A surprise by North Korea could include the launch of a 3-stage Taepodong, a flight test to waters off Alaska or even the U.S. West Coast, or a nuclear weapon test. Any of these could occur at any time with little warning.

Pyongyang would expect the shock to cause the U.S. and Japan to withdraw their complaints and resume paying tribute. After all, paying off North Korea was favored by Presidents Carter and Clinton, and may be expected to resume if the Democrats return to power.

The best defense against surprises is to prepare. Much of the media and some in government tend to panic. But missile defenses in Alaska and Japan are being expanded and improved, and defenses soon will operate in the Sea of Japan. North Korea’s surprises can be diminished if we deploy more and better defenses, and keep cool when the surprise occurs.

James Hackett is a contributing writer to The Washington Times and is based in Carlsbad, Calif.

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