According to international intelligence reports, for the last
five weeks, North Korea has been steadily moving towards a test
launch of the Taepodong 2, an intercontinental ballistic missile
(ICBM) with a range up to 6,000 kilometers - enough to reach
Alaska. Satellite intelligence reveals that Pyongyang has loaded
booster rockets onto a launch pad in Musuduan-ri, in the North
Hamkyong Province of northeastern North Korea, and moved fuel tanks
in preparation for fueling. This action is in violation of North
Korea's international agreements and appears designed to goad the
United States into direct bilateral talks. The U.S. must not take
the bait. No good will come from rewarding North Korea for its
A missile test is problematic for the region and the United States
because it would end North Korea's 1999 self-imposed moratorium on
long-range missile tests - a moratorium that was reiterated in the
Pyongyang Declaration when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in September 2002.
The test would spell further trouble for the stalled Six-Party
negotiations over the North's nuclear ambitions. More broadly, a
test would raise questions about the future stability and security
of the region and North Korea's enduring role as the region's
If the missile test does occur, the Bush Administration must not
succumb to pressure to enter into in bilateral talks with North
Korea. The United States has been clear that all diplomatic
negotiations must go through the Six-Party framework involving
North Korea, the United States, South Korea, Russia, Japan, and
China. The Bush Administration should make clear that aggressive
behavior by the North Koreans will not cause the United States to
alter its position.
North Korea last tested a long-range missile in August 1998, when
it fired a Taepodong 1, with a range of 2,000 km, over northern
Japan. That test took many by surprise and confirmed that North
Korean capabilities had progressed beyond previous estimates. A
launch of the Taepodong 2 would put North's Korea's military
efforts back into the spotlight and demonstrate that it now has a
missile with the range to reach the U.S. mainland.
Knowledge of the Taepodong 2 is limited, in part because the system
has never been tested. A 2001 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate
forecast that a three-stage version of the missile could reach
North America carrying a sizable payload. It could be fitted with a
chemical or biological warhead but probably not a nuclear payload,
because North Korea has likely not yet developed the capability to
miniaturize a nuclear weapon.
The United States - along with Japan, South Korea, and Australia -
has urged North Korea to abandon its plans to test the missile,
stating clearly that a launch would be dangerous and provocative
and damaging to North Korean interests. But Pyongyang may have
reached the opposite conclusion. From a North Korean standpoint, a
missile test launch would further three goals:
strategic objective is to raise the stakes for the Six-Party talks,
which have stalled since North Korea's refusal to return to the
table last November. With little incentive for Washington to relent
on its long-standing insistence that Pyongyang must first agree to
return to the talks without preconditions and the global perception
that Iran has become Washington's top priority, a missile test
would raise the level of tension and bring focus back to North
Korea. Further, a test launch would put yet another issue on the
negotiating table and, Pyongyang hopes, distract attention from the
core issue of its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea wants
to test years of investment in missile research and development.
Ultimately, the only way to prove that a missile works is to test
it. A test would not only serve as a stern warning to the region
about the strength of North Korea's ballistic missile capabilities,
but also would enhance the legitimacy of North Korean missiles in
the weapons proliferation marketplace. In part due to the U.S.
crackdown on North Korea's illicit financial activities, a major
source of income of the Kim Jong Il regime, Pyongyang may turn its
attention elsewhere, such as the lucrative weapons and missile
markets. The missile test preparations are being conducted in open
view of foreign satellites; Pyongyang is clearly showing off.
may also be at play. A missile test would demonstrate the
military's supremacy in national policymaking. A launch could also
be a tremendous morale boost for the North Korean public. The
regime has been testing engines for a new missile since at least
2002, and a successful test would bolster Kim's claims that he is
developing advanced technology for his people. This would have the
added benefit of boosting nationalism as a counterweight to
increased international pressures on the regime.
Is Pyongyang fully prepared for the negative repercussions of a
launch? Japan is deeply concerned about a launch that it would
consider a direct threat to its security. North Korea's Taepodong 1
test over Japan in 1998 was a wake-up call that led Tokyo to
cooperate with Washington on a missile defense system. A new launch
would not only bolster Japanese efforts to erect defensive
capabilities against North Korea but would also likely spur the
U.S. Congress to increase its support for missile defense efforts.
Furthermore, such aggression from North Korea could play a role in
selecting the future leadership of Japan. Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi is preparing to step down in September, and polls indicate
that Shinzo Abe, who has taken a strong stance against North Korea
and China, trails moderate candidate Yasuo Fukuda. A North Korean
missile test could aid Abe's campaign, reducing the possibility of
a diplomatic reconciliation between North Korea and Japan.
Seoul's reaction is more uncertain. A North Korean missile test
would further undermine President Roh Moo Hyun's policy of
engagement with Pyongyang, which is already under pressure due to
the North's lack of reciprocity. A test launch would attract
criticism both domestically and internationally. Former President
and Nobel laureate Kim Dae-Jung would have to cancel his scheduled
trip to Pyongyang on June 27th. Yet, it is unclear if a missile
launch would be enough to turn public opinion against engagement
with the North. While critical voices will grow stronger, a new
missile test will be perceived much the same as the previous one
was in 1998: an abstract concern that does not directly threaten
North Korea may hope that South Koreans will focus on strongly
negative U.S. and Japanese reactions rather than the North Korean
threat, thereby driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington. There
is precedent: The 1998 missile launch did not slow down Kim Dae
Jung's "Sunshine Policy."
Unfortunately, the range of policy options for the
international community should Pyongyang proceed with its test are
limited. Washington and Tokyo already have strict economic
sanctions in place, and there is little additional economic
leverage they could exercise. They can, and likely will, continue
to pressure the North Korean regime by aggressively targeting its
illicit activities, but unless China and South Korea decide to halt
their economic assistance to the North, this will have limited
effect. A military option - such as shooting down the North Korean
missile with responding interceptors - should be kept on the table.
In the event of a launch, the U.S. should bring North Korea's
aggression before the United Nations Security Council. While UN
sanctions would have minimal practical impact, they would carry
important symbolic value.
The United States and its partners in the Six-Party process must
not succumb to North Korea's manipulation and brinksmanship.
Undoubtedly, one of Pyongyang's goals is to put pressure on
Washington to re-engage in direct bilateral talks to resolve not
only the missile issue, but its nuclear programs. North Korea has
some reason to believe this will work: After its missile launch in
1998, the Clinton Administration engaged in concerted high-level
bilateral efforts with Pyongyang over its missile programs - to no
avail. The Bush Administration, therefore, should continue to
insist that the diplomatic process must occur within the context of
the established multilateral format. It should not allow aggressive
North Korean actions to alter this.
The five parties engaging with North Korea agree that a North
Korean missile test would be a dangerous act and only isolate
Pyongyang further from the rest of the international community.
Ironically, such isolation is an important step towards successful
conclusion of the Six-Party process.
Balbina Y. Hwang,
Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Northeast Asia in the
Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.