In a concrete and steel mini-city 2,400 feet below the surface of Cheyenne Mountain, some of the 1,100 US and Canadian military and civilian personnel assigned to NORAD here were witness last week to an amazing contrast.
First they monitored the successful launch of the US shuttle Discovery into space to rendezvous with the International Space Station and transfer supplies to the American and Russian astronauts in residence there.
Then a few minutes later, and hardly by coincidence, they monitored North Korea's launch of an intercontinental missile, the Taepodong-2, which failed miserably and tumbled like a damp squib into the Sea of Japan thousands of miles from what might have been its target.
The men and women of NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command), whose mission is to "detect, intercept, and engage" any hostile aircraft or ballistic missiles approaching the North American continent, were on high alert in their underground operations center, measuring in seconds, from a worldwide system of sensors, the speed and trajectory of the North Korean missile. Had it continued flying, and had it contained a threatening warhead, they would have flashed the word to US and Canadian leaders for activation of a wide-ranging air defense system.
We are now poised at a juncture in history that will decide whether such installations like NORAD will ever have to defend against an incoming missile with a nuclear warhead, or whether rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran that aspire to develop such weapons of mass destruction can be persuaded to forgo them.
For now, diplomacy is in play. North Korea, having just fired its intercontinental rocket and a barrage of shorter-range missiles, is center stage. It has done so despite warnings not to from a mentorlike China – its lifeline for fuel and food and its largest trading partner. There has been widespread international condemnation. China has lost face. But the Pyongyang regime has captured front-page headlines around the globe. Is that, as some observers say, what this is all about – a quest by North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il to capture the limelight and be taken seriously? A ploy to spook the West, particularly the US, into giving his impoverished nation the most profitable array of incentives, in exchange for a promise to abandon his development of nuclear weapons? One fact playing into this argument is that the North Koreans positioned their Taepodong-2 on a launchpad clearly visible to US satellites, and pursued a leisurely process of fueling it, while apparently reveling in the world's suspense.
Some diplomats suggest that Kim may be miffed by the posturing in Tehran that has gained Iran international attention, and an offer to Iran of direct talks with the US, which have so far been denied to North Korea.
While wisely maintaining that all options, including military, are ultimately on the table as the West seeks to prevent both North Korea and Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, President Bush has been at pains to stress that diplomacy and persuasion are currently dominant.
With Iran, Mr. Bush has until recently let Western European nations take the lead, keeping the US in the background. But as Iran has prevaricated on and postponed decisions on Western proposals, the US has become more proactive and directly involved.
In the case of North Korea, Bush has insisted on six-nation discussions – China, Russia, Japan, the US, and South Korea meeting with North Korea. Kim Jong Il would dearly like the image-enhancing breakthrough of a meeting with the American president. Bush has resisted this, pushing China, which has the most leverage with North Korea, to the forefront.
Why the possibility of direct US-Iran talks, but not US-North Korean? "Different situations," says Bush.
Meanwhile the United Nations Security Council is the setting for immediate debate over North Korea's missile-firing and threats that it will continue to pursue nuclear weapons. China and Russia are balking at a tough resolution, with the implicit threat of sanctions against North Korea, from other Security Council members. Another UN forum, the International Atomic Energy Agency is the setting for attempts to get Iran to forgo nuclear weapons. Iran is pondering a package of incentives from Western nations but is irritating its interlocutors by delaying a response.
For now, diplomacy rules. NORAD can stand down but stay alert.
• John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.