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"[The Arms Control Association is an] 'exceptional organization that effectively addresses pressing national and international challenges with an impact that is disproportionate to its small size.'" 

– John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
January 19, 2011
Potential North Korean Missile Test Raises Tension

Paul Kerr and Wade Boese

Reports in June that North Korea was on the verge of testing its first longer-range ballistic missile since 1998 set countries around the region on edge. Meanwhile, six-party talks concerning the North Korean nuclear crisis remain stalled.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters June 22 that preparations for a North Korean missile launch were “very far along,” although he had cautioned two days earlier that “the intelligence is not conclusive at this point.”

Hadley and other U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, cautioned North Korea against going ahead with the test. The other countries involved in the six-party talks, which include China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea, similarly attempted to dissuade North Korea from such an action. The six countries have not met since November 2005.

John Bolton, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, told FOX News June 22 that Washington’s reaction to a North Korean missile test would be “overwhelmingly negative.” Bolton has been engaged in “preliminary discussions” with other countries regarding possible multilateral responses to such a test, Department of State spokesperson Adam Ereli said June 20.

Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said June 19 that Tokyo would take “stern action if North Korea fires the missile,” Kyodo News Service reported. These actions could include economic sanctions, Abe said.

Further, the head of South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, Lee Jong-seok, stated that Seoul had “made it clear that a missile launch would have an impact on the South’s assistance to the North,” the country’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency reported June 23. South Korea is a major source of economic aid to its northern neighbor.

Ambassador Han Song Ryol, North Korea deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, told South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency June 21 that Pyongyang is “aware of the U.S. concerns,” adding that the two sides “should resolve the issue through negotiations.” But Ereli told reporters the same day that such a meeting is “not in the cards” and that North Korea should discuss the matter in the six-party talks.

Han also said that his government “has the right to test-fire missiles.” Another North Korean Foreign Ministry official, Ri Pyong Dok, told reporters June 20 that North Korea is not bound by a voluntary moratorium on flight-testing longer-range missiles, which Pyongyang has observed since September 1999.

In September 2002, North Korea agreed to extend the moratorium indefinitely as part of a bilateral agreement with Japan, known as the Pyongyang Declaration. Although North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in March 2005 that the moratorium was no longer “valid,” Pyongyang implicitly reaffirmed it in the six-parties’ September 2005 joint statement. (See ACT, April 2005.) North Korea and Japan pledged to “take steps to normalize their relations in accordance with the Pyongyang Declaration,” the statement says.

Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN June 22 that the missile is a Taepo Dong-2, a longer-range version of North Korea’s 2,000-kilometer-range Taepo Dong-1. (See ACT, June 2005.) The Taepo Dong-1, the longest-range missile Pyongyang has flight-tested, cannot reach the United States.

Because North Korea has not flight-tested the Taepo Dong-2, the missile’s capabilities are uncertain. The range of a ballistic missile depends on such factors as its payload and number of stages. Estimates of the Taepo Dong-2 range from 5,000 kilometers to 15,000 kilometers.

Cheney said the United States believes the missile has three stages, adding that Washington does not know the missile’s payload.

Japan’s senior vice minister for foreign affairs, Yaguhisa Shiozaki, told a parliamentary committee June 22 that North Korea does not appear to be able to mate a nuclear warhead to its longer-range missiles, the Yonhap News Agency reported. Publicly available U.S. intelligence estimates also tend to support that assessment.

The longest-range missile Pyongyang has deployed is the 1,300-kilometer-range Nodong, according to a December 2001 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate.

Missile Defense Activated?

The administration also responded to the North Korean missile launch preparations by readying its nascent long-range ballistic missile defense system to fire, according to a June 20 Washington Times article. But spokespersons from the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and Strategic Command declined to confirm this report in interviews with Arms Control Today, saying they would not discuss the anti-missile system’s capabilities or operational status. MDA has responsibility for researching and developing U.S. missile defense systems, while Strategic Command is charged with overseeing their operation.

Bush vowed in December 2002 to deploy the initial elements of a long-range missile defense system in 2004. The fielded components now comprise nine missile interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska; two additional interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California; and several ship- and land-based radars linked up with satellites and a battle-management command and control center.

But the rudimentary system has not been publicly declared operational and has undergone limited testing. Indeed, the interceptors currently deployed have not been tested against a target in flight. The last successful intercept experiment of an earlier model of the deployed interceptor occurred in October 2002.

In March congressional testimony, the Pentagon’s top independent weapons-tester, David Duma, told lawmakers that the system’s testing record did not indicate that it could be counted on to destroy a hostile missile warhead in flight. (See ACT, April 2006.) Still, General James Cartwright, the commander of Strategic Command, told Arms Control Today May 12 that he would “bring [the system] online in a heartbeat” if a threat emerged. (See ACT, June 2006.)

Meanwhile, MDA successfully conducted a previously scheduled test of a short- to medium-range ship-based missile interceptor June 22. This experiment marked the seventh hit in eight tries for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which is not built to counter long-range ballistic missiles.

Japan, whose territory North Korea’s Taepo Dong-1 overflew during an August 1998 test, has been working with the United States since 1999 to develop and procure elements of the Aegis ship-based anti-missile system. (See ACT, April 2006.)

On June 23, Tokyo and Washington signed an agreement to proceed with the further development of one of those elements, a new 60-centimeter rocket motor for the Aegis system’s Standard Missile-3 interceptor. This new motor, which might be ready for flight testing as early as 2014, is intended to enable the interceptor to target long-range missiles. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow explained to reporters June 26 that the latest cooperation agreement “was not in response to any specific threat, although it is part of a program designed to meet the long-standing North Korean threat.”