As was surely intended, North Korea's July 4 test launch of a long-range missile that, by some estimates, could reach American shores, fastened attention on the most overlooked member of President Bush's "axis of evil."
Yet the clearest message to the United States came from the six other missiles fired that day, not from the now-infamous Taepodong-2. Its apparent failure suggests that the threat to the American homeland remains remote. But the flexing of North Korea's midrange missile muscle confirms that it is probably able to deliver nuclear weapons to Japan or South Korea – or to US forces stationed there.
The result is that the US finds itself in a stalemate militarily, relying on a missile-defense shield that is at best unproven. Any military action – such as a precision strike against a launchpad – risks not only nuclear reprisals against American troops and their allies in the region, but also a resumption of the Korean War on the peninsula.
"North Korea has the capability to inflict significant harm on immediately neighboring states," says Jonathan Pollack, an East Asia expert at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "That's what constrains any thought being given to any preemptive kind of force."
In truth, the July 4 missile test hasn't yet told experts much that they didn't already know. They expected that North Korea was making progress on its mid- and short-range missiles; the launches appeared to support that. At the same time, experts remain skeptical about the capabilities of the Taepodong-2. It was only the second time that North Korea had launched a long-range missile. The other was in 1998, and both were failures.
"I'm going to want to see eight to 12 flights before I say that's an existing capability," says John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.org.
Moreover, others caution that the Taepodong-2 itself – its actual capabilities or range – remains mostly a mystery. Nor does the US know why it failed. "All this is supposition," says Mr. Pollack. "Until we see some additional clarification, it behooves us to wait."
Few other options are available at this point. The secrecy that shrouds North Korea not only makes it difficult to locate key targets such as nuclear facilities or other missile sites, but it also makes it difficult to gauge North Korea's response to an attack.
Former Defense Secretary William Perry suggested in a recent Washington Post opinion article that the US destroy any North Korean long-range missile before it launched. This would be possible because long-range missiles take a long time to fuel, making them relatively easy to spot. The danger, however, is how a beleaguered regime desperate to survive might respond.
"How will North Korea perceive an attack on any given day?" asks Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here. "The options tend to be ones of provoking general war."
For Japan and South Korea – both strong US allies and home base to thousands of American troops – this makes the military option a nonstarter. South Korea knows that its northern neighbor keeps artillery batteries trained on Seoul and has massive ground forces at its disposal. Japan knows that North Korea launched a missile over Japanese territory in 1998.
While the North Korean army is sizable, many experts suggest that the threat presented by these forces, which have not been used since the 1950s, is not the main concern. "As long as the war was conventional, I don't think North Korea would do much better than Iraq did," says Pike.
Rather, experts worry what North Korea would do with its nuclear material if it were attacked. Some say the regime could make sure that its material fell into the hands of other American foes, like Iran or Syria. Others suggest it might be put on top of a rocket heading for Tokyo or Okinawa.
Even before this week's launches, Japan had agreed to work more closely with the US on missile defense. Now, Japan says it will allow Patriot missiles – which are defensive missiles designed to destroy incoming enemy missiles – at US bases in Japan.
On the regional level, missile-defense tests have had some success. Interceptors fired from US Navy ships have worked well, but they are relatively slow, making it hard for them to destroy missiles not launched directly at their ship.
The Patriot missile, first used in the Gulf War, has had more mixed results. The military claims that Patriots destroyed "a number" of Iraqi missiles at the beginning of the current war. But critics counter that many also missed, and at least one shot down a British fighter jet.
As for defense of US territory against long-range missiles, missile defense is still struggling. In the two most recent tests, in late 2004 and early 2005, the missile failed even to launch.
"We've been trying for 45 years" to build a reliable missile-defense shield, says Philip Coyle, who oversaw missile testing for the Pentagon as director of operational test and evaluation from 1994 to 2001. "Unfortunately, it's still not something we can rely on."