North Korea's ballistic missile test last week was bad news for the United States, which is in range of one of the missiles, but also for Israel. Israel isn't on North Korea's target list, but Kim Jong-Il's behavior could set an example for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian leaders.
Ignoring the threats and warnings not to try out the missiles issued by the United States, Japan, Russia and even North Korea's ally, China, Kim has challenged President Bush and has paved the way for other leaders wishing to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction. So far, Kim's gamble has been a success. He exposed those trying to block his nuclear program, headed by the United States, as ineffectual and proved that whoever has nuclear weapons becomes immune to military attack.
The launching of the missiles is a reflection of the failure of U.S. policy over the last 12 years. In 1994, the Clinton administration reached an agreement with North Korea whereby it would suspend its nuclear program in exchange for $5 billion in aid, including two light-water nuclear reactors and 500,000 tons of oil annually. Yet Kim has violated this agreement repeatedly.
The administration made do with threatening but toothless statements. Placing North Korea in the "axis of evil" remains a meaningless expression of disapproval. The Bush administration's attempt to stop North Korea's nuclear program via diplomatic means as part of the "six-party talks" also failed, when Kim put a stop to them and severed contact a few months ago.
Since 1994, North Korea has continued to develop nuclear arms. At the beginning of 2003, it disabled the cameras that the International Atomic Energy Agency had placed in its nuclear facilities and broke the seals and locks on the pool in the Yongbyon in which there were 8,000 nuclear fuel rods.
These steps were grave, particularly because they violated the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT), which North Korea was committed to. Breaking the cameras was a challenge to the U.S. administration. Although experts in the administration expressed fears that by processing the used fuel rods into plutonium, North Korea might produce five or six nuclear bombs within a few months, Bush decided to refrain from taking action and once again made do with statements and threats.
Since then, Kim has crossed a few more red lines that the administration had marked out. He drove out the IAEA monitors and announced his country's withdrawal from the NPT. North Korea appears to have taken advantage of the United States' occupation with the Iraq war plans and then its entanglement there. Kim rightly assessed that the administration would probably not take military measures against him as long as the war in Iraq was not over. In the meantime, he completed developing the bomb. American intelligence assesses that Kim has six or seven nuclear bombs.
The rules of the game changed when North Korea declared it had nuclear weapons, even if the Americans did not acknowledge that. The Bush administration was forced to join the "six-party talks" (with the People's Republic of China, South Korea, North Korea, the Russian Federation and Japan) and swallow Kim's affronts. About eight months ago, an agreement in principle was reached, stipulating that North Korea would give up nuclear weapons in exchange for aid and security guarantees. The missile volley launched by North Korea last week made it clear that it does not intend to keep the agreement, reached in talks that took place in China.
The experiment with the surface-to-surface Taepo-dong 2 missile, one of the seven tested, failed, and it fell into the sea after only 40 seconds. But for South Korea and Japan, the real threat comes from from the short-range missiles that can target them. If these are equipped with nuclear warheads, it could fundamentally change the strategical balance in east Asia.
The U.S. administration's focus on developing anti-missile defense systems is another mistake. They will cost a lot of money, but will not provide a real answer to the Korean missiles.
Policy makers in Jerusalem and Washington should be concerned that Iran will draw conclusions from last week's missile tests and accelerate its development of nuclear weapons. Tehran also understands that once Iran has the bomb, the chances of the U.S. attacking it will diminish. Until now, Iran has played a similar nuclear game to North Korea's, vis-a-vis the international community - walking on the edge, partial concessions, conciliatory declarations, promises that are consistently broken, covert acts contrary to agreements and treaties, and, primarily, successful playing for time.
If the United States fails to learn the lessons of the North Korea case, Iran, too, may complete its development of nuclear arms. Israel can only hope that Bush won't want to leave behind a nuclear armed North Korea and Iran when he departs from the White House in two years.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now