North Korea's recent short range missile tests, its interception of a U.S. surveillance plane and other moves seen as provocative by the United States all came as the prospect of a U.S.-led war with Iraq increased.
One American specialist on military strategy comments that North Korea's military culture of escalation will result in a continued upward spiral in the confrontation with the United States. The specialist, Bruce Bennett of Rand, a research organization in California, said Pyongyang is not likely to do anything to reduce tension now.
"They went first with the launch of some cruise missiles that were anti-shipping cruise missiles, that pretty much all of the powers in the region looked at and said, 'Not a big deal,'" said Bruce Bennett. "The next step could well be the use of a Rodong test, that's being widely discussed, which is a missile that would reach all of Japan, but not much beyond that. Or of more concern, a Taepodong test," he continued, "and Taepodong, depending upon the version and character, might reach targets within the United States."
The United States wants North Korea to stop developing nuclear weapons. Washington confronted Pyongyang last October with evidence it was continuing a secret nuclear weapons program. North Korea then withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, expelled international inspectors and threatened to begin reprocessing spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea said it has a right to defend itself from what it sees as a U.S. threat to its security. Bruce Bennett said North Korea probably sees recent U.S. deployments of long-range bombers to Guam and stealth fighter aircraft to South Korea as an escalation by Washington.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Lieutenant Commander Jeff Davis said those extra deployments are part of annual military exercises between U.S. and South Korean forces.
Commander Davis said the Pentagon is being careful not to do anything that would escalate the current diplomatic impasse into a military crisis. But he also said the United States wants to shore up its defenses in the Pacific while preparing for war in Iraq.
"Those moves are not aggressive in nature," he said. "Those forces are a prudent measure to bolster our defensive posture as a deterrent so that potential adversaries don't take advantage of the timing or think that we are somehow otherwise too occupied to pay attention to that region."
Rand's Mr. Bennett says North Korea probably thinks it has a stronger negotiating position before the conflict with Iraq is resolved. Therefore, Mr. Bennett expects Pyongyang to take further action, especially if it believes the United States is planning to hit its nuclear facility at Yongbyon.
"There has been much talk about North Korean artillery, for example, where they have literally thousands of artillery tubes along the Demilitarized Zone, a fairly good fraction of which can reach even as far as Seoul," he said. "So, they could cause considerable damage in Seoul, either with conventional explosives or with chemical weapons. They could use special forces to bring biological weapons into South Korea or Japan, or possibly even the United States. And they could fire missiles with chemical weapons or, at the very worst, perhaps a nuclear weapon."
Larry Niksch, an Asian affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service, does not think North Korea will try a pre-emptive attack. Instead, he says he worries about what the North might do in reaction to a U.S. strike at Yongbyon.
"My concern, and I think the concern of most observers, really is on North Korea's decision with regard to retaliation should the U.S. launch a surgical strike at Yongbyon in order to prevent reprocessing," Larry Niksch said. "Would North Korea retaliate by turning its heavy artillery on Seoul and, or by firing intermediate range missiles at Japan and at U.S. bases in Japan?"
Pentagon spokesman Davis says a test launch of any kind of ballistic missile, whether the medium range Rodong or the long range Taepodong, would be seen as provocative and in violation of North Korea's moratorium on flight testing.
He notes that the multiple stage Taepodong 2 has not been flight tested.
"The Taepodong 2 that they have is a two-stage ballistic missile. It could deliver a several-hundred kilogram payload, sufficient to strike Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the continental United States," Mr. Davis said. "If they used a third stage, similar to the one used in the Taepodong 1 in 1998, although that failed, then the Taepodong 2 could potentially deliver a several hundred kilogram payload up to 15 thousand kilometers, which would be sufficient to strike all of North America."
Korea analysts have speculated on the catastrophic damages that could occur if a Taepodong test flight went awry.
Mr. Bennett says the situation on the Korean peninsula is more tense now than it has been in the last few decades. But he says he does not believe war is going to break out in the immediate future. "If I had to travel to South Korea right now on business, I think I would," he said.