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Published: Saturday, 7/8/2006

N. Korea's missile madness

North Korea manufactured a crisis when, on what was the Fourth of July in these parts, Kim Jong Il's regime test fired seven missiles, one of them the Taepodong 2, which (in theory at least) could reach the West Coast of the United States.

Just about everybody wants a diplomatic solution. The difficulty in finding one is that in addition to being vicious and untrustworthy, the leadership in North Korea may be certifiably insane, as this report indicates:

"Food and fuel supplies sent to North Korea have been halted, not to force North Korea to stop missile tests or participate in peace talks, but to return the Chinese trains the aid was carried in on," reported StrategyPage Wednesday.

"In the last few weeks, the North Koreans have just kept the trains, sending the Chinese crews back across the border. North Korea ignores Chinese demands that the trains be returned, and insists the trains are part of the aid program."

How does one negotiate with a regime that does stuff like this? Not successfully, as the Clinton administration found out.

On Oct. 21, 1994, the Clinton administration signed a deal (the Agreed Framework) under which the United States supplied food and fuel oil to North Korea, and helped it construct two nuclear electric power generating stations, in exchange for North Korea's promise to stop its nuclear weapons program. North Korea took the aid, and (apparently) built its bomb anyway.

I say apparently because even though North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons, it's never tested one, and the results of the missile tests July 4 give some reason to doubt the efficacy of North Korean technology.

Six of the missiles were short- range Scud Cs or medium-range Nodongs. The long range Taepodong 2 failed within 40 seconds of flight.

Slate's military writer, Fred Kaplan, described the tests as a "catastrophe" for North Korea. "If you're going to defy all your enemies and allies, you'd better come away from the gamble with added strength and leverage," he wrote. "Kim Jong Il emerges from the Taepodong disaster with his chips spent and a pair of deuces on the table."

The Heritage Foundation's Peter Brookes, a former CIA officer, agrees: "This provocation will turn out to be a complete loser for Pyongyang," he said.

The Web logger "Spook 86," a retired Air Force intelligence officer, isn't so sure. The tests demonstrated North Korea has mastered intermediate-range ballistic missile technology, he said, worrisome because North Korea is estimated to have nearly 700 of these missiles.

Conducting all the tests within a four-hour window shows North Korea has the capability to barrage its missiles, said Jon Wolfstahl, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Sales of the Nodong to other outlaw regimes have been a major source of hard currency for North Korea. Tuesday's tests won't discourage them, though buyers won't be lining up anytime soon for the Taepodong 2.

North Korea did get what it wants most. Mr. Kim is in some ways like a petulant child who misbehaves in order to get his parents' attention.

Mr. Kim has never been punished for outlandish behavior. On the contrary, he has usually - as in 1994 - been rewarded for it. He may be insane, but he's not stupid. He'll continue to do what works for him, until it no longer does.

Stupid is, however, a fair description for those in the West who respond to each new outrage from North Korea with the attention Mr. Kim craves, and fresh offers of aid in exchange for promises he has no intention of keeping.

The United States currently is engaged in six-party talks with North Korea (the others are China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea), the purpose of which is to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for massive aid.

The miniscule hopes for a satisfactory diplomatic solution rest with China, without whose support North Korea would collapse. China has so far refused to take a hard line with North Korea, both because China enjoys the headaches North Korea makes for the United States, and because it fears a flood of refugees if Mr. Kim's regime collapses.

Mr. Kim has stuck a finger in China's eye by conducting the missile tests despite their protests, and by seizing the aid trains. Perhaps this will convince the Chinese to put down the carrot and pick up the stick.

If not, our best course of action is to pay as little public attention to North Korea as possible, while building up missile defenses as rapidly as practical. If left alone, the regime eventually will collapse. But it would be better if China gave it a push.



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