North Korea tests Obama

What's going on in Kim Jong Il's unpredictable brain? We know that North Korea's "Dear Leader" is a passionate film buff who directs some of his own propaganda movies. Maybe that helps to explain the peculiar theatrics of his recent satellite mis...

What's going on in Kim Jong Il's unpredictable brain? We know that North Korea's "Dear Leader" is a passionate film buff who directs some of his own propaganda movies. Maybe that helps to explain the peculiar theatrics of his recent satellite missile dud.

Some of us are old enough to remember how the Russians back in the Cold War days waited until they had successfully launched a satellite before they announced it to the world. That way we didn't know how many of their attempts had fizzled.

Kim's regime is different. In defiance of a UN Security Council they launch a missile that they say is carrying a satellite over Japan. When it falls into the ocean way short of anything like an orbit, North Korea's news media dutifully announce that the satellite is successfully in orbit, beaming back patriotic music, even though this country's technology doesn't see or hear a thing up there.

Since the intensely secret North Korea has been known in the past to fire first and announce later, this time the Dear Leader's advance publicity tells us that he cares less about achieving orbit than grabbing attention. On that he succeeded, especially with those who regard any North Korean missile that can reach the United States as tantamount to one that's about to be fired at the United States.

On Fox News Sunday, leading neoconservative Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard fumed, "We can't tolerate these North Korean launches," and the U.S. must "act accordingly." How? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich offered ways "three or four techniques that could have been used" to disable Kim's missile before it ever left the launch pad. They included "unconventional forces" on the ground and "standoff capabilities" such as a remote-controlled missile-firing drone.


Leading conservatives also are furious that President Obama's Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a 15 percent cut from missile defense research. Ah, what a friend our defense contractors have in Kim Jong Il.

Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said before North Korea's launch that the U.S. is "fully prepared" to shoot down the missile. That suggestion was immediately shot down by Secretary Gates. If an "aberrant missile ... looked like it was headed for Hawaii or something like that," Gates said, "we might consider it."

Well, let's hope so. Otherwise, his caution is well advised. Trying to shoot down a missile with another missile still is about as easy as firing a bullet to hit another bullet. The only thing that would have been more embarrassing than North Korea's missile fizzle would be our trying to shoot it down with a missile that missed.

So, how best to handle Kim? Were it not for his nukes and his penchant for selling weapons technology to other country, he would be easier to ignore. He wants our attention. He succeeded with a missile launch that upstaged Obama's European trip and a keynote foreign-policy speech in Prague that called for "a world without nuclear weapons" and a new series of arms-control negotiations with Russia. Like the spurned homicidal lover in "Fatal Attraction," Kim will not be ignored.

He may have another movie in mind with his missile adventure: "Wag the Dog," in which a U.S. president fakes a war to cover-up a sex scandal. Kim has faked a satellite launch, perhaps to cover-up his regime's shaky future.

Although we immediately think his missile launch is all about us, Kim's gesture is aimed just as much at domestic consumption at a time of growing concern about his health problems and lack of an established successor after the Dear Leader's days are over.

The 67-year-old disappeared from public view for several weeks last summer after a reported stroke and has dropped out of sight for similarly mysterious periods ever since. In his latest footage, released last month without a date on it, he looks frail, and slimmed down to a sickly degree from his previous pudginess. The government's descriptions of the footage as evidence of the Dear Leader's robust health are about as convincing as their announcements of a successful satellite launch.

As Nicholas Eberstadt, a scholar on Korean economics at the American Enterprise Institute, observed in the Wall Street Journal, the footage of the frail Kim may have been offered simply to prove to his country that their "Dear Leader" is not dead. The same appears to be true with his mythical satellite. Before we push for regime change in North Korea, it pays to wait and see. It may be coming through natural causes.


-- Page writes for Tribune Media Services.

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