Amid heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, Pyongyang appears to be making preparations to test its long-range ballistic missile, the Taepo Dong-2. North Korea reportedly began moving components of the missile, which may be capable of reaching parts of the United States, to its eastern missile launch site at Musudan-ri in early February. The Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed U.S. counterproliferation official Feb. 3 stating, "The North Koreans appear to be moving missile-related equipment around, but it's too early to say whether or not they will proceed with an actual test."
Pyongyang's official media appears to have confirmed the prospect of a long-range missile test with claims that North Korea has the right to carry out further work in "space development." In that context, the state-run Korean Central News Agency stated Feb. 24 that "the preparations for launching [an] experimental communications satellite...are now making brisk headway." North Korea similarly characterized its 1998 launch of its shorter range Taepo Dong-1 missile as a satellite launch vehicle.
Estimates regarding the range of the Taepo Dong-2 vary widely. The two-stage version has an estimated range of 4,000-8,000 kilometers, making it potentially capable of reaching parts of Alaska, Hawaii, and the western coast of the United States. Yet, North Korea's only test of the Taepo Dong-2, carried out in July 2006, failed 40 seconds after launch. Noting North Korea's technical challenges with the long-range missile, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated during a Feb. 10 press briefing that "the range of the Taepo Dong-2 remains to be seen," adding "so far, it's very short."
Pyongyang's continued missile development violates two UN Security Council resolutions adopted in 2006 requiring that North Korea halt its development and testing of ballistic missiles. (See ACT, September 2006.) The council adopted Resolution 1695 in July of that year in response to North Korea's Taepo Dong-2 test, and it issued Resolution 1718 the following October after North Korea's nuclear test. South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told reporters Feb. 18 that any North Korean launch "will inevitably be followed by sanctions."
Washington indicated that it may consider intercepting the missile if it approached the United States. When asked during a Pentagon press briefing whether the United States would make preparations to shoot down the missile if it came toward U.S. territory, Gates said he intended to make sure other senior U.S. officials "understand what our capabilities are, and that that's an option out there should...we deem it necessary."
During the weeks leading up to the 2006 Taepo Dong-2 test, the United States placed its ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) missile interceptor base in Fort Greely, Alaska, on alert status. (See ACT, July/August 2008.)
It is unclear, however, if this particular missile defense system is currently able to intercept a North Korean missile. A December 2008 annual report by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Operational Test and Evaluation Directorate assessed that "while GMD has demonstrated a capability against a simple foreign threat, GMD flight testing to date will not support a high level of confidence in its limited capabilities."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who traveled to the region in mid-February, told reporters Feb. 17 that a North Korean missile launch "would be very unhelpful" in moving the U.S. relationship with North Korea forward. She stated that the United States was committed to normalizing relations with Pyongyang if it "verifiably and completely eliminates its nuclear program."
Corrected online March 20, 2009. The article previously incorrectly stated that the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1696 in response to North Korea's 2006 missile test. The correct resolution is 1695.