North Korea: Missile Hype? (Updated)

taepodong.jpgWhat to make of the news that North Korea's "115-foot Taepodong-2 missile stands ready to take off from Musudan-Ri, a remote village on the northeast coast of North Korea, after engineers apparently completed loading liquid fuel into its rocket boosters"?The International Herald-Tribune says that "a successful test would provide the strongest indication yet that North Korea was developing the capacity to deliver chemical, biological or perhaps nuclear warheads to targets as far away as the continental United States." The Times notes that it "could also ignite a political chain reaction in Japan, the United States and China, which have been trying to re-engage North Korea in stalled talks about its nuclear weapons program. The Bush administration might step up financing for missile defense; Japan might increase its missile defense efforts as well, while militant Japanese politicians might push to reconsider the nation's nuclear weapons options."Center for Defense Information missile guru Victoria Samson takes the threat seriously, too. But she cautions us not to get too caught up in the hype.

This [move to test] probably is a combination of several factors: NK trying to press the United States into sitting down in one-on-one talks, which NK would love but the United States is unwilling to concede and instead obstinately sticks to the six-party talks formula, which clearly is doing so well; NK trying its old stand-by of ratcheting up pressure in order to get concessions (it's backed off in the past after having done so); and NK wanting to test new missile engines. I think that the whole hullabaloo about this now showing that NK can strike all of the United States is just that - a hullabaloo. (emphasis mine)
Arms Control Wonk Jeffrey Lewis reminds us that this "Taepodong-2" isn't North Korea's name for its missile; it's an American designation for a system we really don't know much about. How many stages the missile has, how it gets from point A to point B -- all of that remains a mystery. So these Drudge headlines about "A MISSILE THAT CAN REACH AMERICA" are a bit on the misleading side. The Wonk pulls this quote from General Burwell B. Bell, commander of U.S. Forces Korea:
Ive looked at this in some detail. The Taepo Dong II and III missiles, as we call them, are of the kind that, at least in theory, could produce intercontinental capability. Up through the late 90s, there was a fairly active program in North Korea to develop that missile technology and potentially to test it. In the years since the late 90s, the last six, seven years, we have seen very little activity by the North Koreans to actively continue to develop and test long-range missile systems. Theres no doubt in my mind that they have the capability to begin more technological investigation and to begin a regiment to lead to testing and potentially to lead to fielding. But theres no evidence of it right now.
There's a bunch more imagery and analysis at GlobalSecurity.org.UPDATE 01:38 PM: Interesting take on the situation from Stratfor:
North Korea's perspective, another missile launch may not be a bad tactic. Washington and Tokyo are both suggesting they will issue strongly worded statements, enact further economic restrictions against the North (not that there is much more they can cut off) and maybe even take Pyongyang before the U.N. Security Council, where North Korean allies Russia and China sit waiting with a veto. In fact, if history is a guide, North Korea -- rather than being ostracized by the 1998 launch over Japan -- found itself just a few years later normalizing relations with Italy, Australia, the Philippines, Britain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Canada, Spain, Germany, New Zealand and Luxembourg. And in the midst of this diplomatic offensive, Pyongyang hosted the South Korean president in the first inter-Korean summit.There is, however, another angle to the current posturing. China has been conspicuously quiet about all the hype of an imminent North Korean missile test.... Chinese officials, particularly those in the military, see a clear renewal of U.S. attention and pressure on the Chinese military.Beijing's silence as its neighbor is posing for satellite flybys suggests a certain sense of complicity on China's part. North Korea remains a valuable asset for China in its dealings with the United States: So long as Washington is unwilling to strike militarily at North Korea, Beijing remains the central point of contact with the North Koreans and wields the most influence in Pyongyang. A North Korean missile test, or even a stand-down from a near-test, would give Beijing additional cards to play in Washington...Beijing can subtly remind Washington that, should the United States wish to refrain from bringing too much pressure to bear on China, it in turn can "reason" with the North Koreans. But if Washington keeps the pressure up, the message would go, there is no telling what those crazy North Koreans are capable of.
UPDATE 06/20/06 7:58 AM: "Three senior U.S. officials" told the Washington Post "that reports that North Korea appeared to have completed fueling the missile are based on incomplete intelligence."
U.S. satellites have observed liquid fuel canisters being placed near the missile, but officials said there was no confirmation that fueling took place. "We can't say anything for sure," said one top official with access to the intelligence.Loading fuel into the rocket boosters for the Taepodong-2 missile would almost certainly suggest a launch will take place, because it is difficult to siphon out the fuel. But North Korea has a long history of doing things simply for the benefit of American satellites -- and to bring the world's attention back to the Stalinist state.A year ago, the world was on edge after reports that North Korea might test a nuclear weapon -- and one report even suggested the evidence showed that viewing stands had been built. No test took place.
(Big ups: TP)UPDATE 06/20/06 10:43 AM: "I have a suspicion, a fairly strong one, that whatever's on the pad at Musudan-ri is considerably smaller than the canonical TD-2 [Taepodong-2] that people have been talking about, maybe just an improved version of the 1998 TD-1," sage reader AT writes. "It would be nice to know if the US or Japan actually have imagery that shows the dimensions of the present rocket."AT points us to this report from South Korea's Chosun Ilbo:
South Korea's National Intelligence Service says North Korea is unlikely to have injected fuel into a missile it may be about to launch, according to a member of the National Assemblys Intelligence Committee. Unnamed U.S. officials claimed Sunday the North had already fueled what they allege is an inter-continental ballistic missile at a launch pad in North Hamgyeong Province."At the National Assembly Intelligence Committee meeting, we were told the judgment of the NIS that it is difficult to determine whether the fuel has been loaded," Chung Hyung-keun, a Grand National Party member of the committee told reporters."In the area of the launch platform, there are 40 fuel containers, an amount insufficient, it would seem, to provide the 15 tons of kerosene and 45 tons of oxidizing agent needed to fill the missile up."The lawmaker said the NIS pointed out that the North had on a prior occasion set up a missile and left it for 50 days without fueling it, only to clear it off the platform later. The NIS did not specify when that incident took place.
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