North Korea means business over
missiles By Donald Kirk
SEOUL - The prospect of North Korea firing
off a long-range missile conjures images of the
first skirmishes in a Star Wars scenario in which
countries battle one another with projectiles shot
into space from bases thousands of kilometers from
If that image seems far in
the future, military specialists in South Korea
say North Korean technology may reach the stage in
the next few years of firing missiles as far as
200 kilometers above the earth's surface. From
there they could launch nuclear-tipped weapons
capable of knocking out satellites orbiting the
At the same time, say Korean
intelligence analysts, North Korea is developing
the technology needed to orbit a satellite
the complex gear on those spy satellites on which
the US relies for relaying minutely detailed
images of military facilities, including the pad
on which North Korea's most advanced long-range
missile stands poised for launch.
have no doubt of North Korea's prowess in
developing missiles far more sophisticated than
Taepodong 2, the missile that North Korea is ready
to fire on a test run, in view of the North's
focus on missile engineering and production in
recent years. If the North postpones firing
Taepodong 2 in deference to international
pressure, they warn, research and development will
remain a priority for a regime that earns about
$1.5 billion a year from the export of missile
components and technology.
"I hope nothing
will happen," says Kim Tae-woo, senior researcher
at the Institute for Defense Analyses, affiliated
with the Defense Ministry in Seoul, "but I have no
doubt they are technically capable of advancing in
this field for many years."
Right now, Kim
believes "they are capable of putting nuclear
weapons on their missiles". That is, tipping them
with nuclear warheads that could theoretically
reach the outlying American states of Hawaii and
Alaska as well as the North American West Coast.
That assessment of North Korean capability
pays tribute to its success in building thousands
of scud and Rodong missiles and selling them
mainly to Middle Eastern clients, including Iran,
Syria, Libya and Yemen.
Korea's economy has fallen into serious disrepair,
its leaders have encouraged the country's best
engineering minds to focus on developing weapons
of mass destruction - and missiles to carry them
to targets - with the same zeal that South Koreans
dedicate to such fields as motor vehicles,
shipbuilding and high-tech electronics.
The latest North Korean missile, the
Taepodong 2, is probably at a rudimentary stage,
unable to get anywhere near a specific target
thousands or hundreds of kilometers away, not
likely to have the gear needed for carrying or
firing a nuclear warhead and probably not able to
go 6,700 kilometers, the range it's said to be
able to fly.
The speed with which North
Korea has developed Taepodong 2, however, alarms
both Japan and the United States. Its precursor,
Taepodong I, fired on August 31, 1998, from the
same site now occupied by Taepodong 2, had a range
of about 3,200 kilometers. Zooming over the main
Japanese island of Honshu, it landed in the
northern Pacific south of Vladivostok after
failing in its avowed mission of putting into
orbit a communications satellite broadcasting
patriotic music honoring Kim Il-sung.
Regardless of whether Taepodong 2 gets off
the pad, the fact is North Korean engineers in
less than eight years have managed to build a far
more advanced version of the Taepodong without
benefit of testing.
neither the US nor Japan has the network of
anti-missile defenses that could guard against any
kind of Taepodong once engineers had managed to
make it reasonably accurate - and capable of
carrying a warhead tipped with nuclear, chemical
or biological weapons.
"The US has a huge
system," says Kim Tae-woo, but few options. "It
would be unthinkable" for interceptor missiles,
fired from California and Alaska, and possibly
Hawaii, to find it or hit it when it reached the
booster or terminal stages and had fired off its
payload - in this case a communications satellite.
The US interceptor network has had a
notoriously high rate of failure in recent years -
so terrible, in the view of specialists both in
South Korea and in the US, that there's no chance
of firing off an interceptor missile unless the US
were under direct attack. And then, the missiles
would be highly unlikely to find and targets
before undergoing a long and perilous period of
trial and error.
More realistically, the
US has to rely on Aegis-class destroyers plying
the waters between the Korean peninsula and Japan
and also the northern Pacific. They carry SM3
missiles that are designed to counter short and
medium-range missiles, not the high-flying
Taepodong 2. Perhaps most significantly, the US
and Japan are co-developing versions of the SM3
for deployment on Japanese Aegis-class destroyers.
"They have test-fired them a few times,"
says Kim. "We believe they're on destroyers in the
East Sea" - that is, the Sea of Japan.
Optimistically, some South Korean
officials believe North Korea might be dissuaded
from a launch for fear that failure - or
interception - could set back Pyongyang's missile
export program. North Korean leaders "would be
burdened by the possibility that a launched
missile would be intercepted by a US Aegis ship",
says Colonel Shin Sung-taek at the Defense
The systems on the Aegis-class
destroyers, however, would not be likely to
respond quickly or accurately enough to a single
missile flying kilometers away, just as the US
anti-missile system would be unable to home in on
a missile from the American mainland.
While defense against any of these
missiles remains shaky at best, analysts are
confident of the technology needed to find out
when they take off and where they are going. A US
infrared satellite could detect the launch of a
North Korean Taepodong 2 missile almost from the
moment it lifted off the pad, and tracking devices
could determine within two or three minutes where
it was going and where it was likely to land.
Japan's concerns While the US
worries about the implications of the Taepodong 2,
Japan has much more to fear than the US in view of
its proximity to the Korean peninsula.
North Korea, besides exporting hundreds of
scuds, surface-to-surface missiles with a range of
320 kilometers, is believed to have about 600 of
them ready to fire.
Known for their
inaccuracy, they still could rain hell on South
Korea if the South abandoned its reconciliation
policy and were persuaded to fight alongside
Americans and Japanese in some future
conflagration. As it is, they pose one more reason
why South Korea has no desire to join its putative
American "ally" in a war to strip North Korea of
its missile bases.
Still more fearsome,
North Korean Rodong missiles have a range of at
least 960 kilometers - far enough to hit targets
in Japan even though they, too, are inaccurate.
North Korea has exported a number of these
missiles as well as the technology with which Iran
and Pakistan are testing their own versions of the
At the same time, North Korea is
holding on to about 200 Rodongs, ready for firing
from mobile launchers as well as submarines.
The US, however, has another response
lurking quietly in the region - that posed by
three aircraft carrier groups operating in an
exercise called "Valiant Shield" in waters around
The carrier groups - carrying nearly
300 planes aboard the Ronald Reagan, Abraham
Lincoln and Kitty Hawk, centerpieces of a flotilla
of 30 ships - constitute the single-biggest US
force at sea in the western Pacific since the 1994
nuclear crisis. From that crisis emerged the 1994
Geneva framework agreement, under which the North
promised to give up its nuclear program in
exchange for facilities for producing nuclear
power to help fulfill its energy needs.
Two of the major Pentagon figures from
that era, William Perry, then secretary of
defense, and Ashton Carter, who served as
assistant secretary under Perry, in a commentary
in the Washington Post called for a preemptive
strike to "destroy the North Korean Taepodong
missile before it can be launched".
White House promptly discounted any such plan, but
the carrier group could move north in a few days
if the US were to consider a strike in retaliation
for launching the Taepodong 2.
Koreans fervently hope the whole crisis will blow
over in a war of words, not missiles. "No nation
is doing this kind of missile test," says Kim
Tae-woo. "If they launch the missile, it is a
great challenge to non-proliferation. They will
lose friends in the international arena. They will
lose friends in South Korea. I believe and I hope
they will cancel."
Kirk has been in and out of Korea since