U.S. officials, describing Pyongyang's launch as a test of its liquid-fueled, 1,500–2,000-kilometer-range Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile, were initially unaware of the attempted satellite deployment. Speaking to reporters in Moscow on September 1, Gary Samore, senior director for non-proliferation on the National Security Council, said that "this is a serious development but certainly not one that has surprised us." Based on satellite imagery of the rocket's support scaffolding and activity at the site, Washington had reportedly anticipated the North Korean launch by as much as two weeks—enough time to position special ships and aircraft to observe the launch.
After Pyongyang announced the satellite launch, however, U.S. officials began to adjust their statements. By September 14 State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said, "We have concluded that North Korea did attempt to orbit a very small satellite. We also have concluded the satellite failed to achieve orbit."
The North Korean rocket was comprised of a No Dong first stage and a Scud second stage, with a solid rocket motor and a small satellite as the payload. A government official told The New York Times on September 15 that with a successful third stage (and an unspecified payload), the Taepo Dong-1 could travel 3,500 kilometers.
Various theories regarding the timing of the launch have been suggested, such as a ploy to extract concessions during the ongoing talks with Washington regarding the Agreed Framework and other issues, or as a salute by the North Korean military to leader Kim Jong Il, who on September 5 acceded to the highest post of the North Korean government. The launch may also have been staged as a reminder to Washington of North Korea's dissatisfaction with U.S. performance in implementing the 1994 nuclear agreement. (See ACT, June/July 1998.) Additionally, the launch may have been intended to demonstrate a new staging capability that North Korea could market to client-states like Pakistan and Iran, which are known to be interested in longer-range missiles. Staging is one of the key barriers preventing missile programs based on Scud technology from achieving greater ranges. Cited in CIA and Defense Department reports as a key proliferator of missile technology, North Korea has attended two rounds of bilateral missile talks with Washington aimed at ending Pyongyang's missile development and export programs.
Reminding Washington of the stakes involved in the missile issue could also have motivated the launch. On June 16 the KCNA announced Pyongyang's willingness to accept financial compensation for ending its missile exports. Two congressional staffers visiting North Korea at the end of August were reportedly told a figure of $500 million. The State Department announced on September 10 that a new round of bilateral missile talks will be held in New York on October 1.
The consequences for Asian security from the missile launch could be severe. On August 31, Japan announced that it was suspending its signature of the cost-sharing agreement reached July 28 for the light-water reactor project at the heart of the Agreed Framework. (See story.) Japan has committed itself to pay $1 billion of the $4.6 billion project. Under pressure from Washington and Seoul, Tokyo may relent on its suspension of cooperation in time for construction to begin in November, the Kyodo News Service reported on September 10.
South Korea and Japan may also use North Korea's action to justify new defense initiatives. The Mainichi Shimbun reported on September 7 that Japan's Defense Agency has begun looking into the development of information-collecting satellites for both civilian and military purposes. Tokyo has also expressed new interest in collaborating with the United States in studying the feasibility of developing ballistic missile defenses, a move sure to raise concern in China.
Within two weeks of the North Korean launch, on September 10, South Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Hong Sun-yong said that he would call for revision of Seoul's 1979 agreement with the United States not to develop or deploy missiles with a range greater than 180 kilometers.
In the past, Seoul has argued that it should be allowed to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and build missiles capable of delivering a 500-kilogram payload to a range of 300 kilometers, the regime's threshold of control. A State Department official said on September 15 that Washington would like Seoul to join the MTCR but "under the right circumstances"—namely ending its longer-range missile ambitions.
Washington's missile defense debate could also be affected by the North Korean launch. Robert Bell, special assistant to the president for national security affairs, acknowledged to reporters on September 1, "There's no question that the test of the Taepo Dong-1 will factor into the congressional debate on national missile defense." Bell went on to point out that "the degree of technical challenge going from an intermediate-range missile like the Taepo Dong-1 to an intercontinental-range system like the Taepo Dong-2 is really quite profound." Even with the test, Bell said, the administration remains confident there will be "at least three years' warning of an ICBM threat."