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Missile madness stalks--Test firings in India and North Korea make Tom Plate nervous

Tom Plate

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Missiles generally make me very edgy, even when they're aiming to allow a crew to conduct weightless experiments that will cure cancer and eliminate deformed births, etc., etc. As the old joke goes, sometimes they aim for the moon, but somehow fall on London!

Even when they have a peace-loving communications-satellite on the tip of their nose, they nonetheless remind me, inescapably -- in my anti-missile neurosis -- of the potential for the total annihilation of mankind. And the notion of Armageddon (that is, total global decimation) is, if you take the time to think about it, rather unnerving.

And so the fact that so many countries find it necessary to develop, test and maintain costly ballistic-missiles cannot possibly be a positive commentary on the state of the world. Consider what even India has just done. This is the country of Gandhi and of non-violence which, in those lustrous garments, make it one of our favorite countries, of course. By severe and obvious contrast, North Korea is surely one of our least favorite. This is a given.

But this month they have -- independently, to be sure -- demonstrated at least one thing in common. For whatever reasons, they are both crazy -- indeed, absolutely bonkers -- for missiles.

It's bizarre. Here you have one of the world's great democracies blasting missiles skywards at the very time that the Congress of the United States, another of the world's great democracies, is weighing whether to transfer U.S. nuclear-energy-technology to India. Now that controversial, though justifiable, policy move is made no easier to justify.

And then you have one of the world's most repressive political systems test-lofting more than a half dozen assorted missiles that -- in aggressive circumstances -- could hurt a lot of people when effectively capped with weapons of mass destruction.

What awful timing, too! Japan, which is North Korea's number-one historic enemy in Asia, is in the process of selecting a successor to Junichiro Koizumi, the outgoing prime minister. Now (I shall boldly predict) that successor will prove a hardliner -- less and less likely to take a calm view of North Korea.

At the same time, the Bush administration had been starting to melt at the edges from the period waves of heat from its allies South Korea and from regionally influential China to lighten up on its policy toward North Korea. Now that argument -- post-missile tests -- will be ever harder to sell to the hard-nosed Bushies.

India and North Korea would also appear to have something else in common -- and this is also scary. Neither of their missiles seems to shoot straight. They go up, but no one seems to know where they will come down. Consider the recent facts on the ground.

The Indians, for their part, launch two missile shots of their own. One they describe as the attempted lofting of a peace-loving communications satellite. It never lofts: Whatever the reason, it blows up shortly after takeoff, taking down with it the pricey Insat-4C satellite aboard.

And just the day before that disaster, India puts up a test launch of its longest-range nuclear-capable missile. Another figurative bomb: The Agni-III surface-to-surface missile crashes into the Bay of Bengal.

These Indian tests in South Asia occur as the world was trying to shake off the specter of the flurry in East Asia, which only happened about a week before. Some of the half dozen or so North Korean so-called "Scuds" seem to have tested well enough, but are almost prehistoric missiles by the standards of contemporary ballistic technology. Even so, at least one of them appeared to have strayed so close to Russia (presumably unintended) that it woke the Russians up and led to a serious official reprimand by their Foreign Ministry. And, in the most important misfire, North Korea's much-advertised, long-range Taepodong-2 missile blew up like a dime-store firecracker not long after takeoff.

Maybe all this errant missile-testing is finally getting on China's nerves, too. After all, President Hu Jintao -- who rarely says anything even remotely controversial in public -- recently conveyed to North Korean officials the notion that they were not contributing in a positive manner to "the stability of the peninsula."

Precisely because Hu is never going to be remembered by history as a man with a special way with words, I would, if I were the North Koreans, listen carefully this time. The next time, he may actually back up the words with action. Miracles do happen.

 
 

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