WASHINGTON — If North Korea fires a missile at Hawaii on or around the July Fourth holiday, as Japanese reports have warned, the U.S. plans a measured response in coordination with Russia, China, Japan and South Korea.
In an exclusive interview with McClatchy, White House National Security Adviser James L. Jones said of North Korea and its erratic communist dictator Kim Jong Il: "Our reaction will be dependent on what it is they do over the next few days, few weeks, whatever it is."
Jones said that the U.S. has "looked at a range of options that we have at our disposal" and is maintaining "an open and constant dialogue" with Russia, China, Japan and South Korea, all of whom share regional interests.
Recent Japanese reports said that North Korea plans a missile attack on Hawaii, about 4,500 miles distant, around July 4. As of Thursday, however, U.S. experts on North Korea said there's no evidence of an impending long-range launch.
"It usually takes several days to fuel and prepare it," said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow specializing in Northeast Asia for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research organization. Klingner said that North Korea either might be looking at a later date, or might instead launch short-range Scuds or intermediate-range ballistic missiles. Either would violate a United Nations resolution, but neither could reach Hawaii.
Experts said they don't think North Korea has the capability to reach Hawaii, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered special radar and missile-defense technology to Hawaii days ago just in case.
North Korea on Thursday reportedly test-fired four short-range missiles that flew about 60 miles before falling into the sea. Those followed a May 25 underground nuclear test and an April 5 rocket launch. The U.N. imposed economic sanctions on the communist regime following the nuclear test.
North Korea launched a long-range Taepodong-2 missile on July 4, 2006, but it failed in less than a minute, falling harmlessly into the Sea of Japan, along with five shorter-range missiles.
Chaibong Hahm, an expert on the region for the RAND Corporation, said the Obama administration's emphasis on consensus-building with allies in the region shows its desire to reassure allies that the U.S. doesn't want to act unilaterally.
Convincing China to toughen its stance on North Korea continues to remain a challenge for the U.S., however. "The only way to get anything done here is to get all the regional powers in there together, talking and thinking and acting," Hahm said. "Until now, North Korea has really exploited" divisions among its neighbors.
Even if North Korea does fire a missile toward Hawaii, Hahm said, "I think at this point there's very little that we can do. It will be another round of global international coordinated condemnation." The value in that, he said, is "to make sure that the Chinese and Russians are on the same page and everyone realizes North Korea is a serious issue."
There are concerns that North Korea could gain the ability to fire long-range missiles successfully over time. U.S. officials also are concerned about a regional nuclear arms race.
In addition, Jones emphasized that any international response to North Korea will also send a signal to Iran, which has its own nuclear ambitions that President Barack Obama wants to keep in check.
"What we do in North Korea is going to be watched very carefully by Iran and they'll draw conclusions there," Jones said. "So there's some metrics here that are really pretty global."
In an interview Thursday with the Associated Press, Obama described recent cooperation with Russia and China on North Korea as "fairly remarkable" and said that "the sanctions regime after the nuclear tests and the missile launches by North Korea have been robust in part because Russia and China have been willing to go further than they've been willing to go in the past."
Obama told the AP there "potentially is room for more later" in terms of getting Russia and China to agree to tougher sanctions on North Korea. However, Obama said, "What we're also trying to do is to keep a door open for North Korea to start acting in a responsible way, to recognize that a denuclearized Korean Peninsula is the only way that they are going to achieve the kind of commercial ties and development opportunities that can be good for their people. And we want them to know that path is still available."
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday declined to discuss intelligence on North Korea, but said that "the impact alone of a united international community is tremendously important.
"I take the North Koreans at their word that they're going to continue their provocative actions," Gibbs said. "What's important is that the international community is united in isolating those actions . . . and ensuring that proliferation of weapons and material from North Korea to other countries doesn't take place."
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