- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

PARIS.— As the Islamic republic of Iran tempts the United States with its quest to become the second nuclear power in the Middle East after Israel, North Korea is doing the same with its intent to launch a long-range ballistic missile that could reach the continental United States.

That would make North Korea the second nation in Asia, after China, in a position to present a real threat to U.S. security. Not to mention India and Pakistan, nuclear powers in their own right, but they are friends of the United States — for now. Subsequently, the U.S. now finds itself caught between two nuclear conundrums. However, in that respect North Korea is one step ahead of Iran.

By announcing it has a long-range missile that places the continental United States in its path, Pyongyang is in fact buying itself an extra card with which it can bargain in any future talks; the reclusive communist state can always barter to keep its nuclear arsenal in return for giving up on the missiles.

Reports from Seoul quote American and Japanese officials as saying they believe North Korea is poised to launch because the Taepodong-2 missile has been fueled. United Press International’s Seoul correspondent reports “satellite photos show launch preparations at the Musudan-ri missile facility in North Hamgyong Province in northeastern North Korea.”

In many ways Iran, with its Shahab-2, Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 missiles (said to be based on the North Korean model), is trying to emulate Pyongyang’s tactics. After all, if it works for North Korea, why not for Iran? If Iran develops the Shahab-4, according to several experts, they should be in a position to reach targets as far west as Italy and Germany. And of course, they could target Saudi Arabia, Egypt — and Israel.

If both countries are allowed to proliferate their nuclear ambitions, the risk of other countries feeling obliged to follow suit is all too real. Think what would happen were Iran allowed to proceed with its project. First, the two major Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would most certainly feel threatened and would understandably wish to purchase their own nuclear insurance. With mega-millions of petrodollars already in the bank and the oil price rising almost weekly, Saudi Arabia could easily find the money or people to either build, sell or even steal a nuclear bomb or two.

Egypt — facing harsher economic constraints than its oil-rich fellow Arab state — would have a harder time rounding up the funds for a similar adventure. But the sale of a statuette or two from the Cairo Museum, or some piece of stolen antiquity from the Valley of the Kings or Queens in Upper Egypt, would quickly take care of that.

Accordingly, if Egypt were to go nuclear, the “reformed” colonel in Libya might start to have second thoughts about having trashed all his weapons of mass destruction hardware, as he did, giving it all away to Uncle Sam. With his newly found oil contracts, he might have other ideas by now.

But the United States is not alone in trying to be the nuclear policeman of the world. If Washington is vocal in the Middle East in trying to keep Iran nuke-free, China for its part opposes the prospective missile launch, fearing it could be used as a pretext by Japan to step up its own efforts toward its missile defenses and in doing so, develop stronger security ties with the United States.

“The North’s missile threat seems aimed at gaining political leverage more than anything else, as its nuclear card is losing effectiveness. With the missile card in hand, the Kim Jong-il regime seeks to have direct talks with the United States,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea specialist at Dongguk University in Seoul.

But doing so will not be easy for the cash-strapped North Korean economy. UPI reports from the Korean Peninsula quoting intelligence sources as saying “the state control has been weakened since its economic reform measures in 2002, which brought about negative fallout, including tremendous inflation.”

North Korea’s ruling elite, mostly Workers’ Party members, have also increasingly complained about the country’s economic reform measures as eroding the privileges they have enjoyed for the past decades, intelligence officials have said.

“North Korea may use a missile launch to create a warlike mood in the society to tighten its control over the people and cope with mounting outside pressure,” the source said.

But South Korean officials said North Korea would not press ahead with a missile launch, if only for domestic reasons, because it would lead to punitive measures from the United States and Japan.

If the North is foolish enough to launch a long-range missile, it would force South Korea to join in sanctions hit on Pyongyang and review its economic assistance, which has helped the North Korean economy stay afloat, officials say.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International. Charles Lee, UPI’s Seoul bureau chief, contributed to this article.

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