By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Reports that a large rocket was moving by train toward North Korea's east coast punctuated a tense week on the Korean Peninsula. It began Monday with the North's underground test of a nuclear device, included the firing of six short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan, and featured a declaration by the government of Kim Jong Il that the truce that ended the Korean War was null and void.
In Singapore at a regional defense meeting, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates signaled that the United States and many of North Korea's neighbors are getting fed up.
"We will not stand idly by as North Korea builds the capability to wreak destruction on any target in Asia -- or on us," Gates said, according to the Associated Press. He did not call North Korea's nuclear program a direct threat to the United States but said it was a "harbinger of a dark future."
Gates told defense officials at the meeting that the U.S. government understands and disdains the game of brinkmanship North Korea is playing.
"They create a crisis, and the rest of us pay the price to return to the status quo ante," he said. "As the expression goes in the U.S., I'm tired of buying the same horse twice.
"There are other ways perhaps to get the North Koreans to change their approach," Gates said. "I think this notion that we buy our way back to the status quo ante is an approach that I personally at least think we ought to think very hard about."
North Korean leaders have said this year that they want to be recognized as a nuclear power, but Gates said the United States would not do so.
The missile recently spotted on a cargo train resembled the Taepodong II missile that North Korea launched over northern Japan into the Pacific Ocean on April 5, an unnamed official told Yonhap, the South Korean news agency.
Yonhap quoted other South Korean officials as saying that activity had been spotted around a factory in the North known to build long-range missiles.
The long-range launch in April, which violated U.N. resolutions and triggered condemnation from the U.N. Security Council, demonstrated to U.S. experts that North Korea has made notable progress in multistage rocket technology.
Once North Korea perfects a three-stage intercontinental ballistic missile the size of the Taepodong II, experts say, it may have enough range to strike the western United States.
This spring, North Korea's marriage of missile and nuclear tests fits into what U.S. intelligence agencies and independent experts agree is an attempt to fashion a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop the North's growing arsenal of missiles.
In both missiles and nuclear bombs, experts say, North Korea appears to be making progress but still has a long way to go before it will have reliable bombs that can be consistently delivered by long-range missiles.
"North Korea, perhaps to this point, may have mistakenly believed that it could be perhaps rewarded for its wrong behaviors," South Korea's Lee Sang-hee said. "But that is no longer the case."
Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the second in command of the Chinese military's General Staff, said China "has expressed a firm opposition and grave concern about the nuclear test."
The U.N. Security Council continues to work on a resolution in response to North Korea's second nuclear test. A U.S.-backed draft demands that the North stop testing nuclear devices, cease advances in its missile program and allow international inspectors to monitor its nuclear activities.
North Korea kicked the inspectors out last month after the Security Council condemned the April missile launch.
Pyongyang also announced that it would never again participate in multi-nation talks over denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.