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Testing missiles, testing Obama

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 03, 2009 7:30 AM

Peaceful launch of a communications satellite or a dry-run for a long-range missile designed for nuclear warheads? In as few as two days, North Korea could put an end to rampant speculation over its intentions for a Taepodong-2 missile. CNN has reported that North Korean military personnel have started to fuel the rocket, making a launch viable as early as Saturday. For now, the United States seems content to sit on its hands and hope nothing goes awry. The “wait-and-see” approach is a change in military and foreign policy, to be certain, given North Korea’s Axis of Evil status under the previous administration. Our change in policy will set a strong precedent for the next four years.

As we go about our daily lives, the seas between Japan and the Koreas is the site of an influx of warships. Japan, South Korea, and the United States have all sent vessels to protect Japanese citizens from an errant missile or debris. North Korea has hinted that any attempt to shoot down the missile will be viewed as an act of war necessitating an immediate response.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was very clear during an interview on “Fox News Sunday” that the United States has no intention of shooting down the missile even though the launch will be a violation of international law. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution prohibiting ballistic-missile launches by North Korea in response to ballistic and nuclear-weapon testing.

Gates explained during the Fox interview that the United States would respond with a call for economic sanctions if North Korea launches the long-range rocket. In response, North Korea has threatened to end its participation in the six-nation talks for nuclear disarmament if U.N. economic sanctions are imposed.

Many U.S. officials believe the launch is a poorly veiled attempt to test long-range missiles that are capable of being armed with nuclear weapons. Under the Bush Doctrine, without question, North Korea’s launch would justify a pre-emptive strike to stop an imminent threat to ourselves or our allies. Yet, President Obama appears content to let Kim Jong-il proceed with the launch without any military interference from the United States. Granted, unless the United States is willing to act pre-emptively, there is no other course of action until the missile harms an ally or the United States
Obama is willing to trust North Korea’s claim that the missile is for peaceful purposes despite proclamations that U.S. forces are able and willing to shoot down the missile from Adm. Timothy Keating, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Clearly, Kim Jong-il is testing the new administration and Obama’s promise of diplomacy first.

The Obama administration’s shift from a pre-emptive-strike first, questions later is applauded. However, a foreign policy focused on diplomacy and trust toward North Korea sets a strong precedent for the rest of our foreign affairs.

Would our response be the same if it were Tehran, instead of Pyongyang at the center of the controversy? It’s hard to believe that our approach would be “wait-and-see” if a long-range missile were about to be launched from Tehran over Israel. Within moments of being launched, the Taepodong-2 missile will be over Japan. Yet, we are going to trust Kim Jong-il that the missile is for peaceful purposes only. If the U.S. is willing to trust a dictator that was testing ballistic and nuclear weapons three years ago, shouldn’t we also be willing to trust Tehran’s claim that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes as well? If both programs are believed to be nothing more than a pretext for malevolent programs, why is one allowed to continue but the other is not?

The Obama administration must be careful in how it responds to North Korea’s actions. Not only could it adversely affect Japan or South Korea, but it could also define our foreign policy for the next four years. Will President Obama’s focus be diplomacy based on trust and goodwill, or will he continue the duplicity in our affairs with the rest of the world and our affairs with the Middle East?


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