Mrs. Clinton Goes to Asia

Hillary Clinton will arrive in South Korea on the 19th of this month when she makes the third stop of her maiden tour as secretary of state. At least at this moment, the visit to Seoul looks like an afterthought, sandwiched between Tokyo and Jakarta, which come before, and Beijing, the last city on the itinerary.

Of course, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, out of the spotlight for some time, could make Seoul the most watched portion of the trip. He could do that by, for instance, lighting off a missile while Mrs. Clinton is on the Korean peninsula. On Friday, just before leaving on her trip, she warned the North Koreans not to take any "provocative" steps.

It is clear, however, that they are about to: reports in the last few days indicate the North Koreans are preparing to test both short- and long-range missiles this month. It is the expected launch of their biggest missile that is of greater interest, of course. In September, a South Korean paper reported that last year a U.S. satellite detected an engine-ignition test for a North Korean missile capable of hitting the western United States. Then, on the third of this month, Yonhap News Agency stated that a South Korean defense official, who was not named, disclosed that a train was carrying what appeared to be a Taepodong-2 to a launch site.

Should we be concerned? A July 2006 test of a Taepodong ended in apparent failure 40 seconds into the flight. Yet missile-building nations learn as much from their failures as from their successes. We know a Taepodong-2 can reach Alaska, and the version on the train probably can hit the West Coast. With time, the North Koreans will be able to land a weapon any spot on earth.

They already have detonated a nuclear device, which fizzled after it was set off in October 2006. We don't know whether Kim Jong Il now has mastered the difficulties of putting one of those devices on top of one of his missiles, but his technicians are extremely capable and have surprised us, especially at the end of last decade when they skipped a step and went from building one-stage missiles to experimenting with three-stage ones. We can only speculate as to the capability of the missile spotted on that train, but we can say it's essentially "a Taepodong-3," as one South Korean observer called it.