Right now, North Korea is preparing to launch a long-range ballistic missile. The New York Times reported yesterday that satellite imagery confirms a two-stage Taepodong 2 missile has been fueled and assembled on its launching pad. This is assumed to be a test. If successful, the missile could deliver a nuclear strike to Alaska. A three-stage version of the same missile could strike anywhere in the United States.
For the past several days, US and Japanese officials have been trying to forestall the launch. If the missile has indeed been fueled, those efforts would seem to have failed. Siphoning rocket fuel out of a missile is a dangerous and complicated procedure. Moreover, if the missile isn't launched soon, the fuel will begin to corrode its tanks. A launch seems imminent.
On September 9, 2004, a large explosion was recorded in the Ryanggang province of North Korea. A reconnaissance satellite observed a mushroom cloud approximately 4 kilometers in diameter which coincided with massive seismic activity. Subsequent satellite imagery noted what appeared to be a subsidence crater — a signature of an underground detonation — at the same location.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the time, "There was no indication that it was a nuclear event of any kind. Exactly what it was, we're not sure." National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told CNN, "Maybe it was a forest fire of some kind." Despite these denials, the fact remains that during the week leading up to September 9, newspapers had been abuzz with reports that the White House had received repeated warnings that North Korea was preparing to test a nuclear weapon.
Three plausible theories exist to explain the Ryanggang explosion. The most obvious is that North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and that fact has been concealed to maintain global stability. The second possibility is that North Korea detonated a mass of radioactive material in an attempt to create the impression they had developed a bomb. The third explanation is that the incident was an accidental explosion of a massive ammunition dump (which may have caused, or been caused by, a forest fire).
North Korea's last test of a long-range missile was in 1998. That test involved a three-stage Taepodong 1 missile that exploded during flight. The Clinton administration had tried and failed to dissuade North Korea from conducting that launch. If North Korea proceeds with this launch, it would represent a similar diplomatic failure for the Bush administration.
We invaded Iraq because, according to our president and Congress, Saddam Hussein's efforts to obtain nuclear capability constituted a clear and present danger to the United States. North Korea has proven its intent — and depending on the results of this launch, it will have demonstrated its capacity to launch a nuclear attack on the United States.
I'm not suggesting we compound one mistake with another. Our troops don't belong in Iraq, and I don't believe we should invade North Korea. But the time for diplomacy has passed. We need to show our teeth.
The Cold War consisted of a delicate (albeit uncomfortable) balance between superpowers based on a simple principle: Mutually Assured Destruction. Both the United States and the Soviet Union understood that if either side launched an attack, both sides would perish. In the years since, however, United States military actions have created the impression that, although we're quick to engage, we're unwilling to commit. That cannot stand.
We are faced with a determined aggressor. We don't yet have cause to launch a preemptive attack — but we must make a preemptive show of force to assure North Korea that if we are attacked, we will not respond with restraint. We need to test a weapon of our own. It is imperative that our enemies understand our might, and we have to brandish our sword.