Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Taepodong 2 : New missile crisis ?
Taepodong missile launch complex in North Korea,
Musudan-ri, image in May 2006.
North Korea declared Tuesday it has a right to carry out
long-range missile tests, despite international calls for
the communist state to refrain from launching a rocket
believed capable of reaching the United States. The
bristling statement from North Korea to Japanese
reporters in Pyongyang came as France and the U.N.
secretary-general raised the alarm over what are believed
to be the reclusive nation's preparations for a test of
the Taepodong-2, with an alleged range of 6.000 km.
The rhetoric could sour hopes that North Korea might
scuttle the test in the face of international criticism.
But it was unclear whether the comments indicated a
willingness to go ahead with the launch, or reflected
North Korea's penchant for threatening bluster as a
bargaining tactic. The international campaign to block
the launch widened Tuesday, with the French government
and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan calling for a halt
to test preparations. "I hope that the leaders of North
Korea will listen to and hear what the world is saying.
We are all worried," said Annan, who was in Paris. He
called for all parties in the standoff to avoid an
escalation of tensions.
Experts believe North Korea is preparing to test launch a
new missile which could reach the United States. In
1998, it test launched an earlier model which flew over
Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. North Korea
reportedly rejected Tuesday any outside criticism of its
actions. Valerie Niquet, head of the central Asia
department at the French Institute for International
Relations in Paris, says the international community can
put economic and other pressure on impoverished North
Korea to give up its program. "The possibility of
putting pressure on North Korea is not very high in
military terms - nobody would want to envision the risk
of war for whatever motive. But economic pressure can be
inflicted on North Korea, and it's very effective," he
said. Niquet says it is also essential that Japan be
included in any negotiations with North Korea. Concerns
about North Korea may be raised Wednesday, when U.S. and
European leaders meet in Vienna.
(French M-4 missile, 4000 km range for M-4A and 5000 km
for M-4B) French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin,
speaking after talks with Annan, said any North Korean
missile test must draw a "firm and just" international
(Eurocopter Tigre France)
Former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has canceled a
trip to Pyongyang planned for next week because of
tensions over apparent preparations by North Korea for a
ballistic missile test, an official in Seoul said on
"It is practically impossible for him to visit in late
June because of the unexpected circumstances," South
Korean official Jeong Se-hyun, who was negotiating the
trip. Kim, who orchestrated an unprecedented summit with
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000, had hoped to use
the meeting to help restart stalled six-country talks on
ending Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
Kim, who was president from 1998 to 2003, won the Nobel
Peace Prize in 2000 for orchestrating the meeting in
Pyongyang. His visit began a rapid warming of ties
between the two Koreas, which are still technically at
war because only a truce was declared at the end of the
1950-53 Korean War. Kim Jong-il has yet to reciprocate
with a visit to the South.
The Bush administration is weighing responses to a
possible North Korean missile test that include
attempting to shoot it down in flight over the Pacific,
according to US defense officials.
China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu dodged
questions concerning North Korea's possible trial of a
new long range ballistic missile on Tuesday.
Jiang made her debut as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs
spokesperson last week and appears not to have a complete
grasp or confidence in articulating the bandwidth of
policy information the PRC is willing to make public at
its twice weekly press briefings. Her answers were
either terse one sentence statements or boilerplate
commentary that did not address the questions being
asked; her responses were usually a combination of both,
contributing to uncertainty at possibly a critical time.
The Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said her country
had "heard of reports" about the impeding North Korea
missile test, but repeatedly refused to offer details on
when and where China had first learned about the planned
Any launch, successful or otherwise, would ratchet up
tensions in the ongoing crisis over North Korea's
ambitions for nuclear weapons. U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice warned the test was "a very serious
matter and a provocative act," saying Washington's stance
on the matter was of the "utmost seriousness."
There was an intense flurry of diplomatic activity over
the weekend, with Secretary Rice discussing the
possibility of a North Korean missile launch with her
Japanese and Chinese counterparts, pressuring the PRC in
particular to have its client state put a halt to the
When queried about China's reaction to Rice's comments,
the spokeswoman sidestepped by giving a bland statement
about her government wanting "peace on the Korean
peninsula and working with relevant parties" towards that
The U.S. rebuffed a North Korean offer made in early
June for its chief nuclear negotiator, Christopher Hill,
to visit Pyongyang for discussions. The North insists a
resolution to the nuclear crisis can come about only
through direct talks and a non-aggression pact with
The Bush administration continues to support the six
party process -- sponsored by China and involving the
United States, North and South Korea, Japan and Russia --
as the best means to resolve the key multilateral crisis
facing East Asia.
Talks have bogged down since the North has refused to
return to the table after an American crackdown on banks
in Macao dealing with the North Korean government and
companies suspected of laundering drug money and
counterfeiting U.S. currency.
Analysts believe the silence shown by the PRC on the
issue is an effort to downplay reports North Korea has
fueled its Taepodong-2 missile and stands on the
precipice of testing a weapon system that in its most
advanced three stage version would be capable of reaching
most of the United States.
The test would break a moratorium on North Korean missile
tests that has held since 1999. The last test of a
long-range missile, a Taepodong-1, was fired over Japan
Members of the American intelligence community believe
the missile on the launch pad is a two stage version
rocket which has the capability of hitting Alaska.
Some U.S. and Japanese officials believe North Korea is
poised to launch because the Taepodong-2 missile has been
fueled. It has been five weeks since the first satellite
imagery showed launch preparations underway at the
Musudan-ri missile facility in North Hamgyong province in
northeastern North Korea.
Bad weather at the launch site delayed any test of
missile system on Tuesday June 21st.
U.S. experts think that North Korea has sufficient
plutonium for a minimum of six nuclear weapons and is
continuing to beef up its atomic arsenal. Defense
specialists say it is plausible the North might be able
to build a nuclear warhead small enough to be fit on a
A western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity
told United Press International the North Koreans "were
putting on a show of brinksmanship and bluster," but did
not think an actual launch would take place for fear of
"alienating the regime's big brother."
Despite recent efforts by South Korea to help its
brethren north of the 38th parallel, North Korea remains
wholly dependent upon China for its security against any
possible U.S. use of force targeting either its nuclear
or missile facilities. The PRC also offers multiple
forms of economic support to keep its communist neighbor
When reporters asked what China's response would be if
North Korea conducted its missile test and why her
answers on this urgent issue were so brief, spokeswoman
Jiang retorted by saying she "wouldn't discuss
hypothetical situations" and that "this is a press
briefing, not a symposium."
Because North Korea is secretive about its missile
operations, U.S. officials say they must consider the
possibility that an anticipated test would turn out to be
something else, such as a space launch or even an attack.
Thus, the Pentagon is considering the possibility of
attempting an interception, two defense officials said,
even though it would be unprecedented and is not
considered the likeliest scenario.
The officials agreed to discuss the matter only on
condition of anonymity because of its political
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he could not say
whether the unproven multibillion-dollar U.S.
anti-missile defense system might be used in the event of
a North Korean missile launch. That system, which
includes a handful of missiles that could be fired from
Alaska and California, has had a spotty record in tests.
Although shooting down a North Korean missile is a
possibility, the Pentagon also must consider factors that
would argue against such a response, including the risk
of shooting and missing and of escalating tensions
further with the communist nation.
Even if there were no attempt to shoot down a North
Korean missile, it would be tracked by early warning
satellites and radars, including radars based on ships
near Japan and ground-based radars in Alaska and
Robert Einhorn, a senior adviser at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies, said a U.S.
shootdown of a North Korean missile on a test flight or a
space launch would draw "very strong international
reaction" against the United States. He saw only a small
chance that the U.S. would attempt a shootdown.
Signs of North Korean preparations to launch a long-range
ballistic missile, possibly with sufficient range to
reach U.S. territory, have grown in recent weeks,
although it is unclear whether the missile has been fully
fueled. U.S. officials said Monday the missile was
apparently fully assembled and fueled, but others have
since expressed some uncertainty.
Bush administration officials have urged the North
Koreans publicly and privately not to conduct the missile
test, which would end a moratorium in place since 1999.
That ban was adopted after Japan and other nations
expressed outrage over an August 1998 launch in which a
North Korean missile flew over northern Japan.
At the time of the 1998 launch, the United States had no
means of shooting down a long-range missile in flight.
Since then, the Pentagon has developed a rudimentary
system that it says is capable of defending against a
limited number of missiles in an emergency ? with a North
Korean attack particularly in mind.
The Government Accountability Office, Congress'
investigative arm, says the Pentagon has spent $91
billion on missile defense over the past two decades.
The 1998 event turned out to be a space launch rather
than a missile test; U.S. officials said the satellite
failed to reach orbit.
U.S. and international concern about North Korea's
missile capability is heightened by its claims to have
developed nuclear weapons. It is not known whether they
have mastered the complex art of building a nuclear
warhead small enough to fit a long-range missile,
although in April 2005 the director of the Defense
Intelligence Agency, Vice Adm. Lowell Jacoby, told
Congress that North Korea was capable of arming a missile
with a nuclear warhead. U.S. officials have since
called it a "theoretical capability."
No administration official has publicly raised the
possibility of bombing the North Korean missile before it
can be launched. Jan Lodal, a senior Pentagon policy
official during the Clinton administration, said in an
interview Tuesday that he would not rule out a
preemptive strike. He said it would be the surest away
of eliminating the threat of being surprised by the
launch of a Taepodong-2, an intercontinental ballistic
missile that some believe has enough range to reach U.S.
David Wright, a senior scientist at the private Union of
Concerned Scientists, said he strongly doubts that the
Bush administration could back up its claims of having
the capability to shoot down a North Korean missile.
"I consider it to be rhetorical posturing," Wright said.
"It currently has no demonstrated capability."
The last time the Pentagon registered a successful test
in intercepting a mock warhead in flight was in October
2002. Since then, there have been three unsuccessful
attempted intercepts, most recently in February 2005.
Rick Lehner, chief spokesman for the Pentagon's Missile
Defense Agency, said the next intercept test is scheduled
for the August-September period, to be followed by
another before the end of the year. Lehner said that
beginning about a year ago, the system has periodically
been placed in "operational status."
Baker Spring, a Heritage Foundation analyst and strong
advocate of U.S. missile defenses, said he believes that
"in theoretical terms" the U.S. system is a capable of
defeating a North Korean missile. And he thinks that if
the North Koreans launched on a flight pattern that
appeared threatening to the United States, the
administration "would be well within its rights" under
international law to shoot down the missile.
The Washington Times reported Tuesday that the Pentagon
has placed its missile defense system in an active status
for potential use.
Officials in France and elsewhere called Tuesday for a
strong response by the international community to any
possible missile test by North Korea. A senior U.S.
official says the possible North Korean missile test is
raising alarm in Asia as well.