The International Herald Tribune
Paris, Monday, September 14, 1998

Stand Up to North Korea's Missile Blackmail


By Gerald Segal 
TOKYO
- When North Korea recently fired a Taepo Dong-1 missile with a range of 1,200 miles, there was a chorus of concern from South Korea, Japan, the United States and others. A U.S. official said that the missile test had the ''potential to destabilize the entire region.'' 

In reality, the test has little impact on East Asian security. Its importance is more in what it says about North Korea's predicament and strategy. If there is a military impact, it may well be felt further afield.

 South Korea has every reason to be fearful of the North, but this missile adds little to the threat it already faces. Given the range, twice that of the previous No Dong missiles tested by the North, the weapon is clearly designed for more distant adversaries.

 Japan is the main target. That the missile flight path crossed Japanese airspace only reinforces the message. But while Tokyo has reason to be worried, it has no reason to exaggerate the risk. Japan has long been a target of Russian and Chinese missiles, and has relied on the U.S. security umbrella to deter attack.

 The North Korean missile firing is more a test of the will power of Washington to sustain its alliance commitments in the region. Japan and the United States certainly have enough countervailing military power to deter North Korea.

 Pyongyang has spent much of the last decade demonstrating that it can pose threats to American security interests and blackmail the United States into paying blood money. The 1994 nuclear accord was a case in point, with Washington leading an international effort to supply North Korea with fuel and new nuclear reactors in exchange for a promise to halt a nuclear-weapons program.

 No one should be surprised that a North Korea in deep economic crisis wants to make fresh threats that might also be traded for more payoffs. Pyongyang reportedly wants $500 million before it will suspend sales of missiles to rogue states. No doubt it will want an even bigger sum to suspend the sales of more potent weapons that could cause strategic headaches if acquired by Iran, Iraq or Libya.

 The Kim Jong Il regime is fond of this line of blackmail. U.S. intelligence reported in August that North Korea has constructed a new nuclear site that looks suspiciously like a violation of the 1994 nuclear accord. No doubt the calculation is that by raising American anxiety levels, Pyongyang will exact more foreign aid. This tough strategy has worked in the past and its continuation shows just how much Mr. Kim's government is under the control of hard-liners, especially in the armed forces. 

This is not a North Korea ready to embrace interdependence with the outside world. It is a country that knows it is weak, but sees its enemies as being fragile, too.

 South Korea's economic woes prompt North Korea to interpret President Kim Dae Jung's current peace offensive as a sign of weakness. President Bill Clinton's travails are painfully obvious, as is the seemly structural weakness of the Japanese economy and political system. Recent crises of international capitalism are interpreted in Pyongyang as arguments against reform as a way out of the North's dire economic predicament.

 The time has come for the United States and its allies to kick the habit of succumbing to North Korean blackmail. Pyongyang has little leverage if Japan, South Korea and the United States appreciate that the new 2,000-kilometer-range missile has relatively little impact on the military balance in East Asia.

 North Korea, like the rogue states of the Middle East that it supplies with missiles and know-how, must be treated firmly. Those who reward Pyongyang's attempts at blackmail should not be surprised if Iraq or Libya try their own versions of the game.

 The writer is director of studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and director of Britain's Pacific Asia Program. He contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune