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North Korea: Missile Launches A Show Of Strength, Fear

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il (file photo) (epa) WASHINGTON, July 7, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- North Korea surprised the world this week by launching a mix of short-range and long-range missiles. RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher asked Dan Goure, a former Defense Department adviser during the administration of U.S. President George Bush (1988-92), how worried the world should be and what could happen next.

RFE/RL: Why did North Korea launch these missiles now, and in such numbers?

Dan Goure: Well, in my view there were three reasons why the North Koreans chose to demonstrate their missile capability. One was because there hasn't been enough attention paid to them lately, particularly in the six-party talks. They've boycotted the talks, but the point is nobody has made much effort to get them back to the talks.

Second, because the United States is focused largely elsewhere -- particularly Iraq, Iran, and the global war on terror -- and they wanted to try and bring our attention back to them.

And thirdly because they are, I think, continuously worried about being attacked, rightly or wrongly. There was a recent article in the "Washington Post" by two former senior Democratic defense officials talking about actually attacking North Korea -- the missile site at Taepodong. And so I think part of the reason in fact was a concern for their own security.

"[The Bush] administration has done more than any other to ensure that within a very few years the North Korean missile threat vanishes from the scene."

RFE/RL: There are reports coming out now that the long-range missile that fell into the Sea of Japan after 43 seconds -- the Taepodong-2, which is theoretically capable of reaching the United States - did, in fact, malfunction. Is that a reason to feel less worried?

Goure: The fact that they actually managed to get this very bulky, difficult-to-deploy, difficult-to-stage missile to operate even for that little amount of time, still has to be considered, if not a success, then a first step on the way to success.

RFE/RL: Do these missile flights indicate that North Korea's weapons-technology program has improved since the last time they fired a missile, in 1998?

Goure: The last missile they fired was simpler by a great deal from the one[s] they tried to fire [this week]. And in fact, what we do know is that their ability to operate and to launch multiple short- and medium- range missiles has, if anything, improved over time.

RFE/RL: South Korean newspapers are reporting that there are still three or four intermediate-range missiles on launching pads in North Korea. And a spokesperson for the North Korean Foreign Ministry has said that missile launches are a normal part of the country's self-defense drills. Are we going to see more launches in the coming weeks and months?

Goure: You know, one of the things that's always interesting about dealing with North Korea is you rarely see the same thing twice when it comes to these stunts, or these activities. And as a result, it's hard to know because we don't have any template. They have never done anything like this -- with this kind of style, with these kinds of numbers involved, the different types of missiles all being launched. They don't tend to test much at all. So we don't really have a good answer to the question, what to expect next. They're going to teach us by doing.

RFE/RL: Japan and the United States are calling for sanctions against North Korea. China and Russia oppose sanctions, so there is a divide on the UN Security Council. Do you think sanctions or a resolution is more appropriate at this point?

Goure: It almost doesn't matter what happens in the short term because we are at an impasse. We are at an impasse in the international community: witness the reaction of various countries to the latest round of activities. We are at an impasse with respect to what we could offer North Korea that would satisfy them and still be viable for us.

We are at impasse because in the end it is extraordinarily unlikely that we can pay any price that will get North Korea to give up the most valuable commodities that they have, which are their nuclear-weapons programs and their ballistic-missile programs.

RFE/RL: Do you agree with some observers who say that the Bush administration has ignored the growing threat from the Korean Peninsula for far too long, and these missile launches are the consequences?

Goure: Actually, I think the Bush administration has done a great deal to deal with this threat. The most important thing it's done is begin to deploy a missile-defense system. And in the next few years, we will have in place a very effective missile-defense system. At that point, it almost doesn't matter that North Korea has ballistic missiles because they will be unable to employ them.

This administration has done more than any other to ensure that within a very few years the North Korean missile threat vanishes from the scene.

RFE/RL: Finally, do you see any parallels between what's happening in Iran, with the West trying to curb that regime's nuclear ambitions, and what we've now learned about North Korea's weapons program?

Goure: There are a number of parallels between the situation in Iran and North Korea, the most important of which is the inability of the international community to effectively constrain rogue states. This is very reminiscent of the 1930s. Not Italy and Germany, or Japan -- now it is North Korea and Iran, and it was for many years, Iraq. The problem here is that if we don't restrain these states, there's very likely to be one or more wars in the region.