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What a N. Korean Missile Test Would -- And Would Not -- Mean

By Ian Bremmer

Recent satellite photos appear to confirm something Washington has long suspected: Kim Jong-il hates to be ignored. As the major Western powers, Russia and China spend considerable time and energy debating how to respond to Iran's fast-developing nuclear program, new evidence suggests North Korea may be preparing to remind us that it already has a nuclear arsenal - and that it must not be neglected.

Why, the North Koreans may be wondering, is everyone so interested in Iran? The mullahs don't yet have a nuclear military capability and insist Iran is enriching uranium only to generate electricity. North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons - and its leadership isn't shy about bragging about them.

Since firing an earlier-generation missile through Japanese airspace in 1998, Pyongyang has observed a unilateral moratorium on test launches. But U.S. and Japanese satellites have recently monitored a sharp spike in activity at one of North Korea's missile sites. Washington and Tokyo fear the Democratic People's Republic Of Korea (DPRK) is preparing a first-ever test launch of the long-range Taepodong 2 - a missile that could conceivably reach the United States.

The New York Times, quoting two unnamed senior U.S. officials, reported on June 19 that the DPRK appears to have fully fueled the missile. If so, North Korea may well intend to use it, since siphoning out the fuel is a complicated and time-consuming process. If the report is correct, the DPRK would have about a 30-day window in which to launch.

But though a missile test would generate international headlines for several days and spook South Korean and Japanese markets, it probably can't do much to change the diplomatic status quo. Washington continues to insist that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program but lacks any viable military option to enforce its will. China, the only state with meaningful leverage in Pyongyang, remains unwilling (perhaps unable) to apply enough pressure on Kim's regime to force real concessions. North Korea has no interest in giving up its nuclear program - its principal international bargaining chip and the ultimate guarantor of its security. Kim needs continued international isolation to maintain his firm grip on power. None of this leaves much room for diplomatic maneuvering.

In other words, the political standoff over North Korea's nuclear program is stuck so deep in the mud that even the test launch of a missile capable of hitting California probably won't budge the process very far in any direction. Washington can't afford to substantially escalate the conflict, and Pyongyang can't afford to back down.

So why does North Korea now appear to be readying a missile launch? Kim is well aware that Iran has been offered a number of carrots in exchange for a halt in uranium enrichment. On May 31, the Bush administration even offered to end a 27-year diplomatic embargo and sit down with Iranian negotiators for face-to-face talks. One day later, North Korea invited Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill to Pyongyang for direct negotiations. Washington said no. No new incentives and no direct talks. Bush administration officials argue that one-on-one dialogue with the DPRK is unlikely to produce any real progress. Kim may believe it's now time to up the ante.

It remains unclear whether North Korea will launch. If Kim's government hopes only to regain international attention, squeeze a few additional concessions from South Korea and China and set off alarms in Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, the mere credible threat of a test may already have gotten the job done. U.S. and Japanese officials have expressed dismay. Asian markets are rattled. China is more likely to push for a near-term resumption of six-party talks (which could earn Pyongyang more incentives) if North Korea does not fire the missile.

An actual missile launch might well encourage the United States and Japan to tighten sanctions, force South Korea to temporarily support the harder-line U.S. and Japanese positions, alienate friends in Beijing, and help U.S. and Japanese advocates of missile defense systems renew their calls for action.

But even if the test goes ahead, there is little likelihood of a significant escalation of the conflict. A further ratcheting up of hostilities is in no one's interest. The United States is not about to try to quarantine the DPRK, board North Korean vessels or take any other action that might be seen as an act of war. Kim wants more concessions, not a move toward open conflict.

Of course, it's always dangerous for outsiders to assume they know how the North Korean leadership calculates its interests. It may believe that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and that the launch of a long-range missile would produce a very loud squeak. But even the Taepodong 2 has only a limited capacity to distract the world from arguments over Iran.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His new book, "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall," is out from Simon & Schuster. He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.

(C) 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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