In the early hours of July 5, North Korea tested seven missiles. Six short-and intermediate-range missiles were successfully launched but the nuclear-capable Taepodong-2 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) failed 42 seconds after lift-off. A working three-stage Taepodong-2 ICBM with a range of 15,000km could reach the western US.
However, the country most threatened by missiles from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is Japan. While US forces deployed in Japan are also at risk, it will be some time before North Korea can perfect the Taepodong-2 and develop a nuclear warhead for it. However, it is prudent to assume that in time, Pyongyang could develop the capability to threaten the US with nuclear attack.
So the race is on for the US to speed up its nascent missile defense system now located in Alaska and California, in cooperation with Japan. The US has just stationed a destroyer with the AEGIS anti-missile system at Yokosuka.
Another AEGIS destroyer will be sent to Japan in this month. How effective the AEGIS destroyers would be against the hundreds of missiles that North Korea could launch is unknown.
South Korea's position is ambivalent. President Roh Moo-hyun's government wants to continue the Sunshine Policy of engagement and reconciliation with the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
China isn't overly excited by North Korea's missile brinkmanship. Its main concern is the diplomatic tactic of how not to be perceived as part of the problem while refusing to rein in the Pyongyang's truculence. For China, a nuclear-armed North Korea is useful in driving a wedge between the already strained US-South Korea relations, in pressuring the pro-China wing of Japan's policy establishment to further lean toward China, in diminishing US influence in East Asia and ultimately in compelling US disengagement from the region.
In response to the North Korean missile tests, Japan proposed on July 7 a binding UN Security Council resolution with the support of the US and its European allies to ban the transfer of missile and nuclear materials or technology to and from North Korea. This draft was based on the UN Charter's Chapter VII, which enables the Security Council to use force and impose sanctions.
On July 12 China's UN ambassador threatened to veto the proposed resolution on the grounds that it might serve as a pretext for military action against North Korea. China and Russia then proposed a non-binding resolution on July 15 which required all nations to prevent Pyongyang from receiving or transferring missile-related items and strongly urged North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and return to the six-party talks on that program. This watered-down resolution was passed, only to be rejected by North Korea's ambassador within the hour.
The fact is the US has few options in dealing with North Korea. Some observers in the US and Japan have advocated preemption, that is, strikes against North Korea's nuclear and missile facilities. This option is not realistic for many reasons. North Korea has thousands of underground tunnels and caves where it can conceal military assets.
Seoul is vulnerable to a massive attack by North Korea's long-range artillery. In a conflict it is estimated that civilian casualties could reach 1 million. South Korea would be most reluctant to fight for the US' security to the last Korean. In Iraq, the insurgency is looking more like the beginning of a civil war. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is enjoying a resurgence. US forces are already stretched thin in the Middle East. A ground war in Korea is unthinkable.