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 their targets.
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 earth.
At the same time, say Korean intelligence analysts, North Korea is developing the technology needed to orbit a satellite equipped to jam 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.
Analysts 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.
While North 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.
Experts believe 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 Ministry.
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.
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 Rodong.
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 Guam.
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”.
The 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.
South 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.”