When does the bombing begin?

The White House beats around the bush on U.S. plans to deal with North Korea's new missile.

Published June 22, 2006 6:16PM (EDT)

Bill Perry, the former secretary of defense for Bill Clinton, is out in the Washington Post today calling for a preemptive strike against North Korea, which is reportedly fueling a long-range test rocket for its nuclear warheads. The Washington Times, meanwhile, has reported that the threat of a test flight has put the nascent U.S. missile defense system on alert.

So what are the American people to think of all this? Are we on the brink of a new war with a nuclear-armed foe?

At 1:19 p.m. Budapest time, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley took questions from the press about Perry's suggestion and the Washington Times report. Here are the edited exchanges. Your guess is as good as mine.

Attempt No. 1

Q: Former Defense Secretary William Perry just called on President Bush to launch a preemptive strike against the ballistic missiles that North Korea is said to be about to test. What does the United States think about that idea?

Hadley: The solution is for North Korea to decide to respect its own moratorium, not to test this missile, come back to the six-party talks, and let's talk about how to implement the agreement for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula that was reached last September. We think diplomacy is the right answer, and that is what we are pursuing.

Attempt No. 2

Q: There has been some suggestion, as mentioned before, that the U.S. should shoot down a test missile should North Korea launch it. Systems are in place in the United States. Would the U.S. launch a preemptive missile? Or is there any other way of defusing this diplomatically? The line has been only that Pyongyang should come back to the table. It's obviously not going to do that at this moment.

Hadley: Well, we hope it would come back to the table, and we would hope that it would be a little sobered by the unanimous message that the international community has sent, which is that a North Korean missile test right now would be, again, in breach of North Korea's unilateral undertakings and, our view is, in breach of the commitment in the September agreement under the six-party talks to try and promote stability in the Korean Peninsula. So it would be a violation of those understandings and would be disruptive of resolving the broader set of issues with Korea. So I hope they will get the message. They certainly are being sent it by all the principal players through every available channel. And we would hope they would reconsider.

Attempt No. 3

Q: May I just follow up on that question and ask you, more generally, the philosophy of what the missile defense system is, when it might be used -- there was a Washington Times report that it had been alerted, or somehow the readiness of it was raised. Could you just talk to us a little bit about what you can describe or what we can know about it?

Hadley: Yes, can I consult briefly with my colleague here for a minute?

[Press secretary Tony] Snow: We're ready now. [Laughter.]

Hadley: We're ready, but I'm not quite sure what we should say.

Q: Tell us everything. [Laughter.]

Hadley: Where should I begin? No. Look, I've tried in a number of different ways to make the point that the way out of this is for the North Koreans to decide not to test this missile. And that is the way out of it. And, obviously -- and I really need to just stop it right there. I really need to stop it right there. I'm sorry about it, but that's really what I need to do.

Attempt No. 4

Q: Also on the missile. The South Korean defense minister said that they don't think the launch is imminent. What's our reading of where they are?

Hadley: There's sort of two pieces -- one, there's an issue of intentions, what the North Koreans are intending to do, and that's sort of -- you have to kind of read people's minds. The other issues are what are they prepared to do, or what are they -- do they have the capability to do. And I think what we've said publicly is we're watching it very carefully. And preparations are very far along, so you could, from a capability standpoint, have a launch. Now, what they intend to do, which is what a lot of people are trying to read, of course, we don't know. What we hope they will do is give it up and not launch.

Attempt No. 5

Q: Can I just follow up on North Korea again and just make one more try at this? I know you don't want to say, go beyond anywhere, but you're talking about a missile defense system, so one would assume if this missile were in any way threatening us, that you would want to at least attempt to shoot it down, as a missile defense. Can you go that far and say whether that would happen? At least reassure people?

Hadley: Reassure people that --

Q: That if they were to launch, that there would be --

Hadley: Let me try this. We have a missile defense system, which you know, that is being what we call a long-range missile defense system that is basically a research, development, training, test kind of system. It does, of course, as you know from the press, have some limited operational capability. And the purpose, of course, of a missile defense system is to defend ... the territory of the United States from attack.

Attempt No. 6

Q: OK. One question is, you talked a little bit about this before, what you think the motives are behind North Korea doing what they're doing. And two is, how confident is the president in the missile defense system as it is now?

Hadley: I've described the missile defense system I think accurately. It is a research, development and testing capability that has some limited operational capability. It's really the best I can do. In terms of North Korean intentions, you know, this is a very opaque society and very hard to read. And you know it's very hard -- I can speculate on intentions. I don't think it would be useful. What we need to do is look at their capabilities, and that's what we're trying to do.

Update: CNN's John King sat down with Vice President Cheney this morning, a couple of hours after the Hadley press conference. King asked about Bill Perry's preemptive strike question. The vice president did not seem so impressed, suggesting that it was unlikely that the U.S. would launch a targeted strike. "I think, obviously, if you're going to launch strikes at another nation, you'd better be prepared to not just fire one shot," he said. "And the fact of the matter is I think the issue is being addressed appropriately." Cheney did not elaborate.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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