AN ARTICLE SUNDAY ABOUT U.S. MISSILE DEFENSE PLANS IMPROPERLY IDENTIFIED CHAS. W. FREEMAN JR., A FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR AND FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE. FREEMAN IS CHAIRMAN OF A COMPANY THAT NEGOTIATES ON BEHALF OF CLIENTS, PRIMARILY AMERICAN, AROUND THE WORLD TO OBTAIN MARKET ACCESS AND ARRANGE JOINT VENTURES AND ACQUISITIONS. HIS FIRM DOES NOT REPRESENT ANY CHINESE COMPANIES AND DOES NOT ACCEPT GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS OR CLIENTS. ALSO, THE FIRST NAME OF SWEDISH AMBASSADOR ROLF EKEUS WAS MISSPELLED. (PUBLISHED 09/09/99)

At a launch pad in North Korea sits a long-range missile that is a 117-foot-tall, eight-foot-wide exclamation mark for proponents of a U.S. missile defense program.

In the hands of Pyongyang's mysterious and belligerent-sounding leadership, the missile, which is capable of hitting parts of the United States, adds urgency to America's efforts to develop a system that could shoot it out of the sky.

Together with other missiles tested last year by Iran and North Korea, the new missile, named the Taepodong II, has "put over the top the logic for beginning to develop national missile defense," said a senior Clinton administration official.

But some foreign policy experts warn that American missile defense systems could make Asia and the United States less rather than more secure by stimulating an arms race among countries eager to overwhelm the capabilities of those systems.

Although U.S. missile defense systems are still in the experimental stage, they have already had a major impact on policymakers in Beijing. The proposals for a national missile defense system have contributed to China's reexamination of its own relatively small nuclear arsenal, which might no longer provide adequate deterrence against the United States.

And U.S. plans to develop a theater missile defense system--which would protect troops in the field, rather than the whole country--have heightened Chinese concerns that the United States might provide an antimissile umbrella for Taiwan, reestablish military cooperation that was limited after Washington and Beijing opened diplomatic relations and make a Taiwanese declaration of independence more likely.

If China responds by increasing its own missile arsenal, other regional powers--Japan, India and Taiwan--could respond with additions to their own stockpiles. India's efforts would prod Pakistan to build up its arsenal too, and China's response would also increase pressure in the United States for further military precautions.

"This is the classic way arms races get going," said Charles Freeman, formerly a senior Pentagon official who is now a consultant for businesses in China and other countries. "For very good reasons we go ahead with plans that cause other people for very good reasons to do things, and there you have it."

The U.S. drive toward antimissile defenses also has irritated Russia. Moscow has spurned Washington's request to negotiate changes to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which limits the defensive systems each country can deploy.

Clinton administration officials have tried to dampen talk of an arms race. Though missile defense was first promoted during the Cold War by President Ronald Reagan as a way to protect against the Soviet nuclear threat, senior Clinton administration officials have told Chinese leaders that current missile defense programs are directed at smaller "rogue" states that might use a lone weapon or handful of weapons to try to blackmail bigger powers.

U.S. officials have also sought to calm Chinese leaders by saying that missile defense is still an unproven technology and is, at best, years away from deployment. A decision on deployment is possible next year, with actual deployment coming no earlier than 2003 and probably later.

But some policy experts say that explanation is difficult to sell in Beijing, where many leaders believe the United States is pursuing a "containment" policy toward China. Moreover, there have been two successful tests of missile defense technology recently, albeit with targets simulating medium-range missiles, rather than the ocean-spanning kind.

Despite the concerns laid out in the recent Cox Committee report on alleged Chinese espionage, Beijing is widely believed to have maintained a small arsenal of about two dozen nuclear-equipped missiles. They were developed in the late 1950s and 1960s, fueled by then-Chinese leader Mao Zedong's own ambitions and by threats made by the United States to use nuclear weapons during the Korean War.

Although the Chinese arsenal would be enough to deter American nuclear attack right now, an effective U.S. missile defense might defuse the Chinese deterrent.

"We're in the process of bringing about the kind of China force that [Rep. Christopher] Cox [R-Calif.] and others say the Chinese have been developing all along," Freeman said.

Not everyone agrees. "That missile defense leads to Chinese missile development is a specious argument. The Chinese were going to do it anyway," said James Lilley, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former U.S. ambassador to China.

China's recent announcements that it had tested a new long-range missile and that it possessed a neutron bomb have added to the drumbeat in Congress for missile defense, say congressional supporters. China has been updating its missiles so that they carry multiple warheads.

Some U.S. allies remain unconvinced that missile defense will actually reduce risks of attack. South Korea has declined to participate in building nuclear missile defense systems. A security strategist for the South Korean foreign ministry recently said that Seoul viewed missile defense as too expensive, ineffective against the North Korean threat because of the short flight time between the north and south of the peninsula, and detrimental to relations with "other powers," meaning China.

Instead, South Korea wants to build longer-range missiles to add to its deterrent against North Korea's missiles.

By contrast, Japan last month signed a deal with the United States to conduct joint research on a ship-based antimissile system that could destroy incoming missiles like the one North Korea is threatening to launch.

In the United States, despite concerns, an unusual degree of bipartisan support in Congress and the Clinton administration has gathered behind missile defense plans that were deeply divisive during the Reagan era.

Traditionally, conservatives have been the biggest supporters of missile defense for isolationist reasons, said Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But the threat that rogue states could pose to U.S. forces around the world with nonnuclear missiles, and the specter of a rogue state lobbing a long-range nuclear missile toward the continental United States, have rallied liberals who support an activist U.S. foreign policy to the cause of missile defense.

"Missile defense makes interventionist policy possible," Kagan said.

During the Reagan era, there was a less compelling need for missile defense, according to a senior Clinton administration official, because U.S. nuclear deterrence was enough. "Deterrence worked with the Soviet Union because at the end of the day it had a rational, calculating leadership," the official said. "In the case of Iran and North Korea, we're dealing with much less rational and predictable regimes that might do something crazy like attack the U.S."

Yet people active in international nonproliferation efforts believe that U.S. missile defense efforts show that the United States is giving up on nonproliferation and is resigned to countries such as Iran and North Korea obtaining nuclear weapons.

"As missile defense gathers speed, what is the political impact?" asks Roelf Ekeus, Sweden's ambassador to the United States and former head of the United Nations Special Commission for arms inspections in Iraq. "It gives the impression that the U.S. is settling down to live with nuclear weapons. The risk is that more and more [countries] just give up the hope [of nonproliferation], which I think is a great threat."