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Thursday, April 9, 2009

The lighter side of North Korea's launch


BEVERLY HILLS, California — Some things you just don't joke about. Certain developments in the course of human affairs are decidedly not funny. What's a perfect example, right off the top of my head? Oh, how about North Korea's missile launch over the weekend?

Unless you have some kind of sick sense of humor, that's obviously no laughing matter. Look at the reaction! U.S. President Barack Obama has decried it. The Japanese have cursed it. Even the Chinese have not tried to justify it. There's nothing funny about it at all. Or is there?

Let us rail against common sense and prudent citizenship and have a go at explaining why the missile launch by the North Koreans is an absolute howler. OK? For starters, do you know what they formally call themselves? North Korea prefers to be known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Now, if you're not immediately in absolute stitches over this, you don't know what "democratic" means, not to mention "republic" and you may have mislaid your sense of humor.

To continue: the North Korean missile threat, as described by the experts, is allegedly really scary. The weekend test launch could portend a North Korean missile capability that could reach parts of Alaska. Once informed of this fearsome potential, we imagine that the governor of Alaska went ballistic.

Her advisers said, "Sarah Palin, keep your cool." But the one-time Republican candidate for the U.S. vice presidency said: "But they could wind up baking Alaska!" That's pretty funny, actually.

So was the call in reaction last weekend for an emergency session of the Security Council of the United Nations in New York. The very idea that the UNSC would even meet had the big boys of North Korea shaking in their boots. They recalled that prior resolutions of the U.N. Security Council — in 1999, 2004 and 2006 (twice). The intention was to forbid, in effect, North Korea from launching missiles.

When leaders in Pyongyang heard of the probable new U.N. censure they almost died laughing. So, you see, there are some funny things about this news story.

Next is another howler for you. When word filtered out that North Korea might launch a missile, stern-faced authorities in Japan announced to their anxious public (read your history about North Korean-Japanese relations to get this) that they would shoot the missile down if it came close to Japan territory. Better yet, they said, they would even send up antimissile missiles to intercept and destroy any residual "debris" from the missile that might be sprayed over Tokyo.

To that, a lot of Japanese, whose sense of humor is often underestimated, started laughing. With all the pollution and dangerous particles over Tokyo every day, they joked, how could you possibly know if any debris or rocket shards from North Korea had been added to the mix?

Here is one last go at the idea that humor can sometimes be found in even the most horrific and dour event. Recently I was attending a meeting at the California headquarters of the RAND Corp., which is one of the sharpest research think tanks in America. The purpose of the session was to establish an endowed academic-research chair (courtesy of the Korean Foundation — of South Korea, of course) at RAND, dedicated to Korean studies.

During the question period, some upstart, unwashed journalist (whose name shall not be mentioned) asked a RAND expert about whether the "North Korean missile was really more of a tinker-toy joke than a real serious military projectile of terror." RAND is not ordinarily known as a center of comedy. But most of the serious scholars in the room laughed anyway at the tinker-toy jest.

The fact of the matter is that when a North Korean missile goes off — and not always straight up — the people that have the greatest reason to duck and head from the bomb shelters are the North Koreans below. North Korea is to technological excellence as most American automobiles are to . . . forget about it.

But when the titters died down, a RAND expert made the fair point that even a tinker-toy missile has the potential to trigger tremendous destruction — not to mention widespread pre-launch fear. Better to negotiate a North Korean agreement that turns this forlorn regime away from that course in its foreign relations than to have to wait for the day when a North Korean missile is indeed no laughing matter.

As a matter of fact, the well-timed grant from the Korean Foundation in Seoul to endow a chair in Korean studies came precisely on the eve of the North Korean launch of its missile, tinker-toy or not. The assumption of the grant was that investing in knowledge, reason and research was a better deterrent to the insanity of nuclear warfare than anything else you might imagine — with the possible exception of continued and undaunted negotiations. And that's no joke at all.

Veteran U.S. journalist and syndicated columnist Tom Plate is writing books about Asia. © 2009 Pacific Perspective Media Center


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