Weighing nuclear ‘options‘
The vagaries of public opinion are difficult to fathom, never more so than when it comes to the missile and nuclear programs of the two countries that George W. Bush described as forming an ``axis of evil.” Although often mocked for using the term in his state-of-the-union address in January 2002, Bush had it right when he saw Iran and North Korea at opposite poles of an axis in which he also placed Iraq, then under the rule of Saddam Hussein.
The reason for puzzlement about political responses to Iran and North Korea is basic: The protests over their missile and nuclear programs don’t seem to correlate with one another. Here the world went ballistic over North Korea’s test-firing a long-range rocket a week ago, yet Iran has test-fired a number of missiles without arousing that much concern other than in Israel, the putative focus of Iranian hostility.
Granted none of the Iranian missiles have been as long-range as the North Korean long-range model, but the Iranian ``mid-range” Shahab-3 and Ghadr missiles can go far enough to rain hell on Israel. The North Korean Taepodong ― the one the North Koreans call the Unha or Galaxy ― is actually a bunch of missiles taped together, more or less, and stuck in a beautiful long cylindrical tube.
The rocket that plopped into the Yellow Sea on Friday may have failed because it relied on four missiles bound together by the equivalent of a rubber band and thumbtacks for the first stage alone. They were all mid-range Nodongs, the antecedent of the Iranian Shahab. Together they were supposed to power the first stage before separating and falling away, leaving two more missiles for the second and third stages, but engineers evidently were not able to get all four of them to function in unison. A slight difference in vibration rates would be enough to blow the contraption apart.
So what’s there to worry about? Even if they’re able to shoot the missile two or three thousand miles, the North Koreans are far from figuring out how to target it. Nor do they have the resources to fire more than one of them every few years. The chances of reaching Los Angeles with this thing are zero. The Iranian missiles, which have gotten far less publicity, are more fearsome. For that matter, North Korea’s short-range and mid-range missiles can hit anywhere in South Korea and most of Japan.
When it comes to nuclear devices, however, Iran seems to get more attention. Here the values are more or less reversed. North Korea has nuclear devices, anywhere from five or six to a dozen, all made with plutonium at their core at the nuclear complex at Yongbyon north of Pyongyang; Iran has no explosive nuclear devices.
Rather, Iran has enriched uranium to a level of 20 percent. That’s much more than the five percent needed for nuclear power but far short of the 95 percent for fabricating uranium warheads. Iran’s excuse for 20 percent is that’s required for medical use, including radiation. Because Iran has gone that far, Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu thinks it would be a good idea to bomb the Iranian facilities right now. Very soon he believes it will be a lot harder to take the Iranian complex off the map as the Israelis did to a complex the North Koreans were helping Syria build in 2008.
Funny, though, we don’t hear much about the bombing of the North Korean complex or the place where North Koreans are excavating down deep in preparation for their third underground nuclear test.
It’s not as though we’re going to be really surprised when we hear some day that the North Koreans have conducted the test. We’ve been inundated with reports and claims that North Korea’s young new ``supreme commander,” Kim Jong-un, anointed as the Workers’ Party general secretary, chairman of the party’s military commission and chairman of the national defense commission, fully plans to live up to his father Kim Jong-il’s dying wish and make North Korea a full-fledged member of the global nuclear club.
A pro-North newspaper in Japan, counted on to carry the line from Pyongyang, has said the third test is on the cards. Worse, North Korean scientists and engineers are busy learning how to miniaturize the ponderous nuclear devices they’ve got to fit nicely on the tips of missiles ― not just the long-range ones but mid-and-short-range models too.
Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, on a visit here this week, responded cryptically that the United States and South Korea were ``looking at all options” when asked about a ``surgical strike” on Yongbyon and other sites. There are, however, plenty of reasons not to regard a strike as an option. One only has to imagine the panic the North could create by aiming old-fashioned artillery fire at Seoul and Incheon.
Still, it seems paradoxical that the Israelis, and pro-Israeli pressure groups, are pressing for a preemptive strike on Iran’s facilities when Iran has no nukes. No one really wants to do the same to North Korea though it has them. How about forgetting the “option” of attacking either country, and get back to negotiations instead. An impossible dream? Maybe ― but preferable to plunging either the Middle East or Northeast Asia into unholy war.
Columnist Donald Kirk is the author most recently of ``Korea Betrayed: Kim Dae Jung and Sunshine.” Email him at email@example.com.