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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006, 10:55 GMT 11:55 UK
Washington diary: Movie-mad politics
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

It was 4 July and an awful lot went up in a puff of smoke at about the same time.

First there was the space shuttle Discovery, its shedding foam issues resolved, thundering into the skies above Disney World in Florida. An hour later Germany's hopes of winning the World Cup disappeared in a puff of sorts.

Fireworks marking 4 July Independence Day celebrations explode over the White House
Fireworks were not the only things lighting up the sky on Tuesday

A few hours after that, Washington was illuminated by spectacular fireworks on the Mall. Every exploding rocket was trailed by a plume of red, white and blue smoke, set to a medley of great American tunes.

As America celebrated its 230th birthday, the president and his guests were toasting his 60th.

The friends who came to drink gallons of alcohol-free lager with W - his actual birthday is on Thursday, but the party was held on 4 July - stood on the White House balcony looking up in awe at the rain of fire.

But the fireworks that really grabbed the birthday boy's attention - and that of the rest of the world - took place thousands of kilometres from Washington in North Korea.

Only minutes after the launch of Discovery, the Dr Strangelove who runs the hermit state ordered the firing of several exotically named missiles, some with a range of no more than 960km (600 miles) - just enough to hit Tokyo - but one with an estimated range of up to 6,000km (3,730 miles) - sufficient to reach Alaska.

Luckily the Taepodong-2 fizzled out after only 42 seconds and landed somewhere in the Sea of Japan.

But you have to ask yourself: one test missile may be an act of provocation. Two missiles may be a threat. So what on Earth are several? The answer is a cry for attention. A hissy fit from the hermit state.

Independence Day

Kim Jong-il may be a reclusive dictator of a forgotten country, but he is also a satellite TV addict, glued - it pains me to say it - to CNN.

North Korea ...clearly needs a hug but is afraid to ask for one

So you can imagine the Dear Leader's dismay as he flicks from one channel to the next and finds the world stage obsessed with football, Rooney's red card, Brangelina or the nascent nuclear programme of Iran.

But not him. Not a squeak. Nada.

I can just picture him hurling his kimchi at the plasma screen, shouting: "Why all the fuss about Tehran? Why are they getting all the attention when they have barely started enriching the uranium and the rhetoric. We're beyond enriching. We are fully enriched! We have already manufactured six nuclear warheads and we can't even make it onto late night TV? Hello! Whatever happened to the axis of evil?"

So I wouldn't put it past the movie buff Kim Jong-il - who is said to have a copy of every film that has ever won an Oscar for Best Picture - to turn to a blockbuster that didn't win one for inspiration.

Independence Day is a dreadful flick about an alien invasion that spoils celebrations at the White House and on Planet Earth on 4 July. I bet you he has been watching it.

The Taepodong-2 isn't quite as menacing as the city-sized flying saucers that turn New York and Washington into mincemeat but it has at least changed the conversation in the Capital of the Free World.

Left out

The precise trigger for the latest temper tantrum may have been a snub.

Last month, North Korea extended the hand of hospitality to Ambassador Chris Hill, the Under-Secretary of State in charge of Asian Affairs and invited him to visit Pyongyang. The Americans declined and Kim Jong-il, who is desperate to start face-to-face talks with the administration, felt iced out. Ironically enough, Chris Hill was flying to the region for talks, albeit not with the North Koreans.

Kim Jong-il (left) shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a visit to Beijing in January 2006
Kim Jong-il's North Korea relies on China for everything
Then the Dear Leader's dearest friends in Beijing got on the phone. Originally they were perplexed that the North Koreans should be trying to launch new missiles without their consent.

But that all changed when the Chinese Politburo saw the front page of every newspaper from the Memphis Mercury to the Manila Times.

There he was. Japan's foppish prime minister crooning away incomprehensibly in the Holy of Holies, permitted to don the King's shades, allowed to discuss global affairs with Priscilla Presley.

W had arranged a personal tour of Graceland with bells and whistles and the Chinese president wasn't even allowed to call his recent meal at the White House a state visit.

Oh, the shame of it! So President Hu Jintao may have called up Kim Jong-il and said: "Go girl! The skies are yours, just aim those missiles away from us."

Kim Jong-il relies on China for everything from food to power to rental videos. He is unlikely to have launched several missiles without its consent.

Eyeball to eyeball

So what to do? The military option is non-existent since the North Koreans could obliterate Seoul - a city of more than nine million - in a heartbeat without even firing a single missile. The South Korean capital is so close to the front line it can be hit by artillery.

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shown with Kim Jong-il during a visit to Pyongyang in 2000
Dealing with North Korea has long been a slow, delicate process
There are also 36,000 American troops in South Korea, who would immediately become a target.

At the UN they are already talking about sanctions, but what harm do they inflict on a regime that already buys nothing and doesn't mind seeing two million of its citizens starve to death?

So we're back to where we were six years ago when Madeleine Albright talked to Kim Jong-il for 12 hours, donned a cowboy hat and danced in front of North Korean school children.

Diplomacy. Preferably eyeball to eyeball with the only country that can remove regimes at a whim: the United States.

North Korea is the aggressive wolf child, twisted by years in the wilderness. It clearly needs a hug but is afraid to ask for one.

Movie talk

Hollywood has the answer. Kim Jong-il is obsessed with films. He talks about himself as "a director". He treats his countrymen like underpaid extras and uses WMD as stage props.

North Korean soldiers parade in Pyongyang to mark the 60th founding anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea, Monday on 10 October 2005
Pyongyang: The perfect film set?

Isn't he the man who abducted a dozen Japanese film stars and directors because his home-grown movie industry was lacking talent?

When Ms Albright visited the Dear Leader in 2000 he was keen to talk more movies than missiles.

So here's my idea. Invite him over for face-to-face talks about the stuff that matters and sweeten the diplomacy with a guided tour of Universal Studios, lunch with Stephen Spielberg and a life-long subscription to Netflix and Blockbuster.

The missile crisis will be over and North Korea will become a fabulous location for Mission: Impossible 4.


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