Clinton defense secretary William Perry is ready to attack North Korea, now.
Should the United States allow a country openly hostile to it and armed with nuclear weapons to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil?... If North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.But there's a teeny-tiny fact Perry seems to have overlooked: We have no idea, really, whether North Korea is preparing a missile. Or what that missile is capable of doing.The hype kicked into high gear when the New York Times claimed that the Norks "completed fueling a long-range ballistic missile" over the weekend. But the report is getting fishier by the second. The Norks generally rely on a highly corrosive gasoline-kerosene mix for their missile fuel, and an oxidizer containing nitric acid. It's nasty, metal-eating stuff. And once fueled up, the missile has to be launched quickly -- two or three days, I've been told -- or else the missile is basically ruined.It's now been four days. And there's been no launch. Which means it's becoming increasingly unlikely that a missile has been fueled. So much for Perry's demand "to strike the [missile] if North Korea refuses to drain the fuel out."And, of course, there may not be an ICBM at all. Remember, the North Koreans have launched exactly one intermediate-range ballistic missile, in 1998. The thing -- a combination of smaller, Nodong and Scud missiles -- went about 2,000 km or so. Now, U.S. intelligence assumes the Norks have been working on strapping together more Nodongs and Scuds (or, at least, their engines) for an ICBM -- something that can reach three to five times further, and hit the U.S. But no one has actually seen the weapon. Even how many the stages the mystery missile has in unknown; some folks say two, others say three.Plus, as the Post mentioned a few days back, Pyongyang has a long history of staging elaborate hoaxes, in order to get the world's attention.
A year ago, the world was on edge after reports that North Korea might test a nuclear weapon -- and one report even suggested the evidence showed that viewing stands had been built. No test took place.Now, what happens if we strike North Korea -- and there's no missile to hit? What does that do to American standing, then?UPDATE 11:47 AM: "South Korea's defense minister said Thursday that Seoul believes North Korea's missile launch is not imminent despite concern in the region that the communist nation would test-fire a long-range missile." (AP, via FP Passport)UPDATE 5:36 PM:Even Dick Cheney -- Dick Cheney, fer chrissakes! -- is pouring cold water on the Nork missile threat. Check out this interview with CNN's John King:
KING: Do we know what's on that missile? Is it a satellite? Is it a warhead? Is it a test?CHENEY: We don't know. That's one of the concerns, that this is a regime that's not transparent that we believe has developed nuclear weapons and now has put a missile on a launch pad without telling anybody what it's all about -- as to put a satellite in orbit, or a simple test flight. They will, obviously, generate concern on the part of their neighbors and the United States to the extent that they continue to operate this way.As the president's made clear, this is not the kind of behavior we'd like to see, given the fact the North Koreans do have a nuclear program and have refused to come clean about it.KING: What do we know about their capabilities? Some have said this new longer range missile could reach Guam, perhaps Alaska. Others say, no, it might be able to reach Los Angeles. And there are some who think maybe even right here, Washington, D.C. What do we know?CHENEY: We -- this is first test of this particular Taepo Dong II missile -- we believe it does have a third stage added to it now. But again, we don't know what the payload is. I think it's also fair to say that the North Korean missile capabilities are fairly rudimentary. They've been building Scuds and so forth over the years. But their test flights in the past haven't been notably successful. But we are watching it with interest and following it very closely. (emphasis mine)National Security Adviser Steven Hadley says the same thing, basically: "In terms of North Korean intentions, you know this is a very opaque society, and very hard to read." Then he adds this little gem about our mighty missile defense system:
"We have a missile defense system ... what we call a long-range missile defense system that is basically a research, development, training, test kind of system," Hadley said. "It does ... have some limited operational capability. And the purpose, of course, of a missile defense system is to defend .... the territory of the United States from attack."(big ups: RC)