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THE WORLD

North Korea's Strike Range Cast in Doubt

The U.S.'s top Pacific commander says Pyongyang's missiles can't reach the States.

September 23, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The admiral in charge of American forces in Asia said Friday that he believes North Korea has no missile capable of reaching long distances and is unlikely to have one "for a while."

Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, the military's top officer in the Pacific, said that although the U.S. has limited intelligence on North Korea's missile program and even less on the secretive government's intentions, the failure of Pyongyang's test of a long-range missile in July was a sign that such technologies remain out of the regime's grasp.

"The fact that it failed, and the fact that apparently the last time they did this, which was eight years ago, it was also a failure, indicates some problems," Fallon told a group of military writers. "Before we could credibly give them a capability, or assign a capability, they'd have to demonstrate an ability to actually get a missile off the pad and have it fly at long range."

Fallon's position varies in some respects from that of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who has continued to warn of the threat of North Korea's Taepodong 2 long-range missile even after the recent test firing in which the rocket blew up less than a minute after liftoff.

"The Taepodong 2 is estimated to have the range that conceivably could reach the United States," Rumsfeld said shortly after the launch. "And the fact that it failed is a fact, but it does not change the nature of the launch."

North Korea's ability to launch long-range missiles has become highly politicized, with Bush administration critics saying Rumsfeld has overstated the threat to gain funding for the Pentagon's multibillion-dollar missile defense system.

Fallon said the July launch may have been meant primarily as a provocation rather than a genuine test of capabilities. He added that the U.S. military was taken by surprise by the multiple firings of several different missiles during the Taepodong 2 test. A total of seven missiles were fired over the course of several hours on July 4.

The Pacific commander also cast doubt on North Korea's ability to launch a successful invasion of the South, saying Pyongyang's ground forces have gradually degraded in recent years, thanks in part to international economic sanctions.

Since taking over Pacific Command 18 months ago, Fallon has traveled to China three times and has emerged as a leading proponent of more active engagement with Beijing, particularly between the two militaries.

Pentagon planning documents issued in February describe China as the country with the greatest potential to become America's military adversary in the future, but Fallon said the U.S. should be working to increase the number of visits and exchanges with the Chinese military. He acknowledged, however, that his view was not shared by others in the U.S. government.

Though he did not mention specific policymakers, Fallon said "institutions of our government" still tended to treat China as they once treated the Soviet Union, an approach he disagreed with. "It isn't a clone of the Soviet Union," Fallon said. "If you are basing most of your relationship on assumptions, you have a high probability of being incorrect, just on the law of averages."

This week, two Chinese naval ships docked in San Diego, a port visit that was followed by one of the first joint military exercises between the two countries in years. Fallon said China would reciprocate with a more complex joint exercise off its coast this year.

peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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