North Korea may be preparing to test-launch a long-range Taepo
Dong-2 missile from its eastern coast. A missile launch, or even
observable preparations for such a launch, would be the next step
in Pyongyang's escalating efforts to pressure the U.S. and South
Korea to soften their policies toward the North Korean
dictatorship. Needless to say, it would be deeply embarrassing to
the Obama Administration, which, prior to Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton's Asia trip, seemed to be climbing down from some
of the firmer positions President Obama held during the
Pyongyang is sending a signal to the Obama Administration that,
despite the change in U.S. leadership, North Korea will not adopt a
more accommodating stance in nuclear negotiations. Pyongyang's
increasingly bellicose campaign is also directed--perhaps
primarily--at forcing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak to
abandon his requirements for conditionality, reciprocity, and
transparency in South Korean engagement with the North.
Target: North America
Scientists remain uncertain over the range and payload
capabilities of the long-range Taepo Dong-1 and -2 missiles as well
as of potential variants. A 2001 National Intelligence Estimate by
the U.S. intelligence community assessed a two-stage Taepo Dong 2
"could deliver a several-hundred-kilogram payload up to 10,000
km--sufficient to strike Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the
continental United States." The report projected that including a
third stage could increase the range to 15,000 km, which would
allow the missile to reach all of North America with a payload
sufficiently large to accommodate a nuclear warhead. 
North Korea may not intend to actually launch a missile--that
is, if Pyongyang seeks to achieve its diplomatic objectives without
escalating tension beyond a counter-productive level. Its launch of
a Taepo Dong-2 missile in 2006 angered ally China to such a degree
that Beijing acquiesced to a U.S.-sponsored UN resolution against
North Korea. Knowing that any activity at its missile test facility
would be observed by satellites and interpreted as launch
preparations, Pyongyang might hope that concerns over escalating
tensions would cause South Korea and the U.S. to weaken negotiating
positions. After all, the Bush Administration softened its position
when North Korea threatened to reprocess plutonium in late
North Korea's actions may also be an attempt to trigger a
resumption of bilateral negotiations which stalled at the end of
the Clinton Administration. At that time, Pyongyang demanded $1
billion annually in return for a cessation of its missile exports.
The U.S. rejected the demand and sought a more comprehensive
agreement. But North Korea's demand for a presidential summit and
refusal to discuss details of an agreement during Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright's October 2000 trip to Pyongyang and
November 2000 bilateral meetings in Kuala Lumpur doomed the
A High Risk Gambit
A launch would be a high-risk gambit. If North Korea were to
successfully launch a Taepo Dong missile, it would significantly
alter the threat potential to the U.S. and its Asian allies.
Pyongyang's previous Taepo Dong missile launches in 1998 and 2006
failed and its nuclear test in 2006 was only partially successful.
A successful launch of a missile theoretically capable of reaching
the United States with a nuclear warhead would reverse perceptions
of a diminishing North Korean military threat. Pyongyang calculates
that international concerns over rising tensions would soften
demands for North Korea to fully comply with its denuclearization
commitments. Pyongyang would seek to defuse international anger by
claiming, as it did with its 1998 launch, that it was simply
launching a civilian space satellite.
On the other hand, another North Korean long-range missile
failure would not only once again provide fodder for late night
comedians; it would also further reduce the perception of North
Korea as a military threat, thereby undermining its negotiating
leverage. Such failure could reduce any sense of urgency for making
progress either in missile negotiations or the Six Party Talks.
Pyongyang could compensate by increasing tensions elsewhere,
perhaps by initiating a naval confrontation with South Korea in the
West Sea as occurred in 1999 and 2002.
A missile launch would be the Obama Administration's first
foreign policy test. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama
declared that "if the North Koreans do not meet their obligations,
we should move quickly to re-impose sanctions that have been
waived, and consider new restrictions going forward." How
will the President react to a North Korean missile launch? Will the
strong words of the campaign and Secretary of State Clinton's
confirmation hearing be matched by resolute action?
What the U.S. Should Do
- Emphasize that North Korea's actions are provocative,
counterproductive, and call into question Pyongyang's viability as
a negotiating partner. Highlight that North Korea's threatening
belligerence, not U.S. "hostile policy" as Pyongyang claims, has
- Affirm U.S. commitment to defend our allies against any North
Korean provocation, including missile launches or naval
confrontation in the West Sea.
- Underscore Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' pledge to shoot
down the North Korean missile if it approaches U.S. territory.
- Emphasize that North Korea's missile threat demonstrates the
continuing need for the U.S., Japan, and South Korea to develop and
deploy missile defense systems. It is ironic that President Obama's
Secretary of Defense has suggested using missile defenses that
Obama would likely not have funded had he been in office during
- Declare that the U.S. is willing to resume negotiations to
eliminate North Korea's missile threats to its neighbors. Such
negotiations, however, must comprehensively constrain missile
development, deployment, and proliferation rather than simply
seeking a quid pro quo agreement--cash payments in
exchange for not exporting missile technology. Nor should such
negotiations deflect attention from Pyongyang's denuclearization
requirements in the Six Party Talks.
- Demand that all UN member nations fully implement their
existing requirements. A North Korean launch would be a clear
violation of UN Resolutions 1695 and 1718. In response, the U.S.
should Washington should insist that the UN Security Council adopt
a follow-on resolution that includes chapter VII, article 42 of the
UN charter which makes sanctions mandatory and allows for
enforcement by military means.
- Initiate a multilateral effort--comprised of financial,
military, law enforcement, and intelligence organizations--to
sanction North Korean and other foreign companies and government
entities that are involved in North Korean missile and WMD
development and proliferation.
Adhering to the above-noted recommendations will ensure that the
U.S. sends a clear message to Pyongyang, America's Asian allies,
and the rest of the world: A nuclear North Korea will not be
Klingner is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in
the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Paul Kerr, "New North Korean Missile
Suspected," Arms Control Association, September 2004, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2004_09/NK_Missile
(February 17, 2009).