Sunday, June 25, 2006

The old saw that the U.S. Government can only handle one foreign crisis at a time still holds true and, mercifully, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said we wouldn’t get his reply to the latest Western carrots-cum-sticks proposal till Aug. 25. This allows the Bush administration to focus on the latest made-in-North Korea crisis over the refueling of a Taeopodong-2 missile the U.S. believes is a two-stage ICBM. It could hit Alaska, even northern California, said Pentagon experts, and the U.S. is virtually defenseless.

America’s embryonic anti-missile defense system is partially deployed in Alaska and California. But hitting an incoming North Korean ICBM would be tantamount to shooting a rifle bullet fired from one end of a football field with another bullet fired from the other end. The U.S. also has Aegis-class destroyers in the Sea of Japan whose missiles could get lucky if they caught Taepodong in its initial boost phase.

There is no need to speculate whether the North Koreans have the technological wherewithal to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit the nose cone of an ICBM. They got that trade secret years ago via A.Q. Khan, the inventor of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, who was running a nuclear Wal-Mart for the benefit of America’s enemies. In return, Pakistan got North Korean missile technology.

There are varying degrees of ignorance about North Korea, but no expertise. We know the Stalinist kingdom is almost hermetically sealed and nothing filters out about the decisionmaking process around the supreme leader, Kim Jong-il. A regime that lets a couple of million of its own people starve to death rather than open up to Western assistance shares Stalin’s belief that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. In North Korea, everything runs on high-octane paranoia.

A credible source in the speculative welter is a Korean American who has visited North Korea three times in as many years and spent four hours and 20 minutes with the Great Leader on his most recent trip.

The pictures we saw showed the two men sitting across from each other at a small table. Believe it or not, Mr. Kim’s main theme was a desire to improve relations with the U.S. Two-power talks, instead of the six-power format North Korea abandoned last year, was the best way to achieve their objective, Mr. Kim said. The Korean source, who spoke on condition his name be withheld, also concluded, in separate meetings with high-ranking, four-star interlocutors, they are “uncomfortable with their total dependence” on their semi-normal relationship with China.

Normalization of relations with the U.S., the Korean American concluded, would enable Pyongyang to loosen China’s diplomatic embrace. If that is indeed Mr. Kim’s objective, he miscalculated monumentally.

The fueling of Taepodong-2 even managed to provoke normally dovish Democrats into bellicose postures. Former Defense Secretary William Perry and his former Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton Carter wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post in which they recommended launching U.S. cruise missiles to destroy the offending North Korean missile on its pad.

This could be a miscalculation atop the original miscalculation. Mr. Perry figured the 11,000 North Korean artillery tubes calibrated against Seoul, the South Korean capital, would remain silent. After all, South Korea is gradually becoming Kim Il-sung’s meal ticket. So why attack Seoul? Cynics said Mr. Perry must have known there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Baghdad’s 120-degree heat that President Bush would authorize a two-front war situation.

Mr. Perry did not think the North Koreans would retaliate against South Korea given Seoul’s current policy of rapprochement with, and economic assistance to, the North. Yet Kim Dae-jung, South Korea’s former president and the architect of Seoul’s “sunshine policy,” which is designed to bring Pyongyang into the international fold, canceled his trip to the North scheduled for next week.

Why the mighty United States is fearful of bilateral talks with North Korea makes as little sense as the fear of talking to the other axis-of-evil power in Tehran. After launching Taepodong-1 in 1998, which flew over Japan into the Pacific Ocean, North Korea agreed to a moratorium on missile tests. Now the regime says it is no longer bound by its “unilaterally self-imposed agreement.” Worthy of George Orwell’s “newspeak” in “1984.”

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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