North Korea Acts With Impunity

North Korea Acts With Impunity

By Richard Halloran - April 12, 2009

Once again, North Koreans led by Kim Jong Il have defied the rest of the world and, as they have for much of the last forty years, will evidently get away with it as the US, Japan, and South Korea have done little but talk and shake their fingers at the "Dear Leader."

Last weekend, as is widely known now, the North Koreans fired a missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. For a North Korea that cannot feed itself, whose archaic industry is limping, whose trade is anemic except for imports from China, whose people suffer from endemic diseases, and which goes dark for lack of electricity when the sun goes down, this was a spectacular achievement.

Kim Jong Il went to the launch site on the east coast to watch the liftoff, then had himself reelected by acclamation. At midweek, according to the official Korean Central News Agency, 100,000 people jammed a plaza in Pyongyang to celebrate. KCNA crowed: "The DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) succeeded in launching the satellite despite the enemies' unprecedented political and military pressure."

Before the missile launch, President Barack Obama and leaders of other powerful nations warned North Korea not to do it. Afterward, the president asserted that North Korea "must be punished," and was echoed in Tokyo, Seoul, Western Europe, and the United Nations. By weekend, however, little but nattering was seeping out of the UN, the White House, and foreign offices around the globe.

Moreover, the Obama administration through the Pentagon imposed a news blackout despite having erected an elaborate system of missile tracking radars, computers, and communications in Japan, the Aleutians, Alaska, Hawaii, and California, US and Japanese warships at sea, and satellites above the Pacific Ocean. That cost the taxpayers $56 billion over the last seven years.

The Pentagon's Northern Command, with headquarters in Colorado, which is responsible for the defense of the US homeland, published a terse press release with few details, concluding: "This is all of the information that will be provided...pertaining to the launch."

In contrast, after a missile defense test in December 2008, the Pentagon produced Lieutenant General Patrick O'Reilly, Director of the Missile Defense Agency, to open a press briefing: "What I would like to do is go over exactly what happened this afternoon." The Army general proceeded to do just that.

In the North Korean case, rather than inform the citizens the Pentagon is paid to defend, it withheld information evidently for one or both of two reasons:

1) Political: The Obama administration, having decided there would be no response or retaliation for the defiant missile shot, calculated that it would be best to divert public attention by ignoring it.

2) Technical: Something went wrong in tracking the North Korean missile in this first realistic test of missile defense; other tests have been staged. Rather than admit failure, the Pentagon ducked.

The North Korean missile shot was but the latest act of a rogue state. In 1968, North Korea seized the US intelligence ship Pueblo in international waters; 36 hours later, North Korean commandos sought to kill South Korean President Park Chung Hee. The following year, North Korea shot down a US EC-121 electronic surveillance plane, killing 31 Americans.

From that day to this, the North Koreans have mounted assassinations, abductions, bombings, and illicit drug operations, all without drawing effective response from the US, Japan, or South Korea. In the 1980's, Pyongyang began developing nuclear arms; that led to the Six-Party Talks in 2003. The US, China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia have sought, unsuccessfully, to dissuade Kim his nuclear ventures.

In 2006, North Korea detonated a nuclear device. The-Six Party Talks are currently stalled and Kim's missile shot suggests they will recede further toward the horizon.

Richard Halloran, a free lance writer in Honolulu, was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He can be reached at

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