North Korea may have achieved what it was planning all along when it poised its long-range Taepodong II missile for launch: an uproar in the United States and Japan over the possibility of a test flight into the northern Pacific beyond Japan.
The strategy, in the view of analysts here, was to gain the attention needed to try to draw the United States into negotiations on the North's terms – and also deepen the rift between the United States and South Korea, which is intent on pursuing reconciliation with the North.
"Kim Jong Il wants to demonstrate his leadership," says Kim Koo Sub, senior researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses here. "He wants instability in the US-South Korea alliance" – a precursor to eventual withdrawal of the remaining 29,500 US troops in Korea, as long demanded by Pyongyang.
That aim emerged Wednesday when a senior North Korean diplomat at the UN said he was aware of US concerns about "our missile test launch," but that North Korea was interested in talking one-on-one. The inference was that North Korea would put off test-firing the missile depending on the US response – and then on the outcome of talks.
According to this logic, North Korea was just staking out a basis for negotiations by declaring its right to have a long-range missile and to fire it in violation of its own self-imposed moratorium.
In what has become a dangerous bargaining game, the United States is sure to spurn this overture while demanding that North Korea return to six-party talks designed to get the North to abandon its entire nuclear weapons program – not just the launch of a missile theoretically capable of reaching the US west coast with a nuclear warhead.
Japan, if anything more concerned than the US, since a test-firing would probably send a missile over its country, could be expected to support this position. Japan has warned of "stern measures" in retaliation for a missile.
North Korea, in calling for talks, is not about to consider giving up its nuclear warheads without a massive infusion of aid.
Rather, the North's immediate concern is the ban imposed by the US Treasury on all financial firms doing business with the North. The ban has forced the Banco Delta Asia in Macao, the biggest conduit for $100 "supernotes" counterfeited in the North, to freeze North Korean accounts.
"The US is now strangling North Korea economically," says Kim Tae Woo, also a senior research scholar at the Institute for Defense Analyses, affiliated with South Korea's Defense Ministry. "Their immediate objective is to make the US step back."
Mr. Kim advances that view – and not what he sees as overblown suggestions of a US military response – as the primary reason why the North provoked what has become a "missile crisis."
He says the US missile-defense system would be largely ineffective against a single Taepodong streaking over Japan to a splashdown in the northern Pacific – the furthest the missile is likely to go on a test run even if, when fully fueled, it might some day be able to go as far as the American mainland.
Despite a missile shield on bases in Hawaii and the west coast, the only real capability the United States now has to come even close to the Taepodong in the air is by firing missiles aboard Aegis-class destroyers deployed between Korea and Japan and also in the northern Pacific. Even that defense is uncertain at best.
The system on these destroyers includes antimissile missiles, but the US is not likely to use them unless North Korea aims a missile at either the US or Japan. The Taepodong II now on the launch pad – the successor to Taepodong I, fired on Aug. 31, 1998, in a trajectory over Japan and into the northern Pacific – now is tipped with a communications satellite that its booster would try to send into orbit.
US satellite imagery would be able to determine within minutes after liftoff exactly where it was going.
The US ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, argues that firing a missile with a communications satellite is still a hostile act considering that another model of the same basic missile might carry a nuclear warhead.
Mr. Vershbow, a sometimes outspoken advocate of toughness in dealing with North Korea, made plain his views after a lengthy meeting with Kim Dae Jung, the former president who proclaimed the "sunshine policy" of reconciliation with the North. Mr. Kim, having opened a new era in North-South reconciliation by flying to Pyongyang six years ago for the only inter-Korean summit, received the Nobel Peace prize later that year. The success was later tarnished by revelations that his government had secretly funnelled more than $500 million to the North before the summit.
Vershbow and Kim found common ground in the view that a missile launch would deepen the North's isolation, but the ambassador did not go along with the view that the US should make conciliatory gestures.
Rather, he said afterward, six-party talks in Beijing should resume as a precondition for anything "despite the North Korean boycott" – a reference to the North's refusal to attend talks after the US Treasury's actions.
And, said Vershbow, "This missile has military capability," the more fearsome considering North Korea's "illegal development of nuclear weapons."
Vershbow's words may have had some impact on the South, which has been reluctant to join the US and Japan in strong condemnation of a launch. Unification Minister Lee Jeong Seok said "additional assistance would be difficult" – a scarcely veiled threat to hold off on promises to provide several hundred thousand tons of food and fertilizer in the event of a launch.
Perhaps more significant, Kim Dae Jung put off a plan to go to North Korea next week after it became apparent he might become a target of conservative attacks that would undermine his role as an of a soft line and a critic of US policy.