2007-01-05 / Columnists

Meeks' Message From Capitol Hill

By Congressman Gregory Meeks


GREGORY MeeKS 
GREGORY MeeKS While we were celebrating the Fourth of July with picnics and fireworks, North Korea was lighting up the sky over the Sea of Japan with its own rockets' red glare - testing seven missiles. One was a long range vehicle, which failed less than two minutes after launching, and is thought to be capable of going 3,500 miles.

That's far enough to reach Alaska and perhaps the West Coast.

We have denounced the missile tests and called on the international community to speak with one voice in condemning the launchings. President Bush and other Administration officials have also mocked the unsuccessful long range missile test, implying that this failure is somehow indicative of the failure of the North Korean political and economic system.

To me, the failed test is hardly a laughing matter. This is particularly so, given that the short and medium range missile tests were successful.

People laughed at our space program in the late 1950's when a number of Atlas and Vanguard missiles exploded on the launch pad or shortly after firing.

Nobody was laughing when we put a man in space, a man in orbit, and a man on the moon within a decade of those failures.

There was a time when we didn't think North Korea had the technology or know-how to develop short and medium range missiles. They did. We didn't think the North Koreans could successfully process weapons-grade plutonium, the precondition for producing nuclear weapons. They have. Judged by this recent history, it's likely that the North Koreans - unless an agreement precluding it is negotiated and followed - will be able to turn their present failure into future success. We won't be laughing then.

We are dealing with an unpredictable, insular, isolated, and perhaps desperate (some say, paranoid) regime in North Korea. It's not just because one day it may have missiles that could reach our shores. It's that North Korea already has short-range and medium-range missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan.

We are obligated by treaty to defend these allies. More than 30,000 of our soldiers are stationed in South Korea.

Seoul, South Korea's capital, is just 45 miles from North Korea's border. We also have thousands of military personnel and billions of dollars of assets positioned on Japanese territory.

This not only complicates taking military action without dire consequences for our allies, but is all the more reason why we must have an effective North Korean policy. We don't.

Either we manage this crisis effectively now or we will have to manage it in a much bigger and more costly way in the future.

North Korea's July Fourth missile tests flow from six years of policy failure that started with the Bush Administration's virtually automatic rejection of any approach the Clinton Administration took on almost anything.

In this case, where Clinton talked directly with the North Koreans, the Bush Administration rejected direct talks.

Where has that gotten us?

The North Koreans were thought to have had two nuclear bombs when President Bush took office. They may have up to a dozen now, plus the capacity to produce one or two more per year.

Some analysts say that North Korea may have been upset when they heard the Administration say it is prepared to talk directly with Iran about its nuclear program but remain unwilling to talk with the North Koreans about theirs. If they wanted to get our attention they've succeeded.

The Administration has been advised to change course. But, one wonders if the White House has the capacity to jettison its counterproductive policies and doctrines of unilateralism, preemption, and regime change that is required to do this.

So far, Mr. Bush has limited himself to pushing for the revival of six party talks involving China, South Korea, Japan, Russia, North Korea, and ourselves.

Those talks haven't convened since last fall - in large part because of North Korean obstinacy; and partly because North Korea was angered by the unilateral action the Administration took to restrict North Korea's access foreign currency. We support Japan's call for UN sanctions, an action that neither South Korea, China or Russia accepts.

At this point, Mr. Bush continues to reject holding direct talks with North Korea.

There's no doubt that the quagmire the President has gotten us into in Iraq greatly reduces our options, resources, and credibility for dealing with North Korea.

It was always clear that North Korea, which already had nuclear weapons, and Iran, which we thought was trying to start a nuclear weapons program, were much greater threats than Iraq, which did not have nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction.

The President chose to go after Iraq and now we have more than we can handle in all three countries.

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