North Korea claims it is preparing to launch not a missile but a communications satellite.
In August 1998 the isolated country fired a three-stage rocket, the Taepodong-1, over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean without warning. U.S. analysts later concluded that the rocket was equipped with a satellite, but it apparently disintegrated in midair when the third stage failed to fire.
North Korea launched a second long-range ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2, in July 2006. This one crashed into the Sea of Japan about 40 seconds after launch.
"North Korea will launch a communications satellite named Kwangmyongsong-2, as it announced last month," predicted Japanese military analyst Motoaki Kamiura. "It wants to start negotiations with the United States based on the launch of the satellite. For North Korea, which cannot conduct a nuclear test, its only remaining diplomatic card is to launch a satellite."
Masao Okonogi, a professor at Keio University in Tokyo and an expert on Korean affairs, agreed that North Korea's purpose is to start direct negotiations with the United States.
"North Korea wants to advance the negotiations on missiles and the normalization of diplomatic ties with advantage, and thinks that the United States would not start negotiations in all seriousness without boosting the threat by launching the satellite," Okonogi said.
South Korea's Yonhap News Agency has reported that the launch date will be April 4 to 8, citing an unnamed intelligence official. Though the launch pad already has been completed at Musudan-ri in northeastern North Hamkyong province, which is believed to be the launch site for the country's long-range missiles, the assembly of the missile has not yet begun. Such a missile assembly normally takes two to three weeks and about two days for the injection of liquid fuel.
Japan, the United States and South Korea have all called on the North to stop the launch as it would violate the U.N. Security Council resolution banning North Korea from any activities relating to launching a ballistic missile. The three countries announced a plan to strengthen economic sanctions if the North launches the missile.
Is there any incentive that would divert the North from its launch plan? "The possibility exists that North Korea could shelve the firing if the country could return the situation to that of the last days of the Clinton administration," Okonogi said.
In the last months of Bill Clinton's presidency in October 2000, North Korea's special envoy Jo Myong Rok visited Washington and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also visited North Korea to negotiate a missile deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Through the reciprocal visits, the two countries issued a joint communique aimed at seeking epoch-making improvements in bilateral relations. Although the missile deal was not settled, both sides were considering the possibility of Clinton visiting North Korea and the eventual normalization of diplomatic relations.
Now North Korea seems to be posturing once again. In reality, even though North Korea fires a missile of any kind, experts agree that it would pose almost no threat to neighboring countries or the United States.
Since U.S. intelligence satellites have captured the shape, size and movements of the missile, as well as the fact that it takes the North Koreans almost two days to load the liquid fuel, it is unlikely that the launch is seen as a real security threat, Okonogi said. In order to be a serious threat, the missile should be modified to use solid fuel, extend its range to reach the U.S. mainland, and be fired from an underground site where it cannot be observed so easily.
"The purpose of the launch is to receive as much return as possible for stopping the missile development. The missile is only a tool for that, and there is almost no threat," Kamiura said.
South Korean media have reported that North Korea may launch an improved Taepodong-2, with a range of around 4,400 to 5,000 miles, compared to the earlier one with 2,500 to 4,400 miles. According to Kamiura, however, this analysis is based only on the fact that the roof of the missile assembly plant has been raised, apparently to build taller missiles that can hold more fuel.
It is unclear whether the missile has a sophisticated missile guidance system that would enable it to hit its target by re-entry from outer space. Even if the launch is successful, it would only indicate that the missile might be capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii or other outlying U.S. territories.
Iran's success in launching a satellite last month could indicate that North Korea is capable of the same accomplishment, considering that the two countries are suspected of sharing technology and exchanging data.
Japan and the United States have suggested they might intercept North Korea's missile, but this seems an improbable scenario, both politically and technically. If North Korea claims it is launching a communications satellite and Japan intercepts it, North Korea could take this as an act of war. Even if the situation did not escalate to that extent, North Korea could extract a heavy price from Japan or the United States over the interception.
Also, the current political situation in Japan -- in which the Democratic Party of Japan has a majority in the Upper House and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has an overwhelming majority in the Lower House -- means the Japanese government is not in a position to make risky political decisions.
Even if it were politically feasible, intercepting the missile is technologically almost impossible. Japan now has sea-based Standard Missile-3 interceptor missiles deployed on two Aegis-equipped destroyers in Nagasaki prefecture in southwest Japan and a ground-based Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptor missile system in six places, including four areas around Tokyo.
So far, Japan and the United States have tested the system with two successful interceptions. However, a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile could not be intercepted by the SM-3, which has a range of 180 miles, because the missile heading toward the United States would fly at an altitude of more than 620 miles.
In order to intercept a missile with the PAC-3, it should be moved to the expected point of impact in advance, as the PAC-3 has a range of only 12 miles.
The missile defense system was developed for medium-range ballistic missiles such as North Korea's Rodong, which flies at an altitude of 180 miles. According to media reports, North Korea is believed to have deployed 200 Rodong missiles, with a range of 800 miles, aimed at Japanese targets. However, this has not been confirmed.
"Since North Korea has never released any information regarding the Rodong and nobody has ever witnessed them, it is still not sure that the Rodong is really a threat to Japan," Kamiura said. "The media reported that the number of deployed Rodongs was around 100 a few years ago, and has increased to 200 recently. Then it will be 300 a few years later." He suggested that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency might be behind such unconfirmed rumors.
As a deterrent against multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which Russia and China are believed to be developing, Washington plans to develop the next-generation SM-3 with multiple warheads and laser weapons and deploy them in space to intercept such intercontinental ballistic missiles, at astronomical development costs.
Based on the understanding that North Korea wants to exaggerate its military threat -- and the United States possibly has an ulterior motive for exaggerating the threat as well, in wanting Japan to shoulder the tremendous cost of further weapons development -- both Japan and South Korea should be coolheaded in evaluating the real nature of the current danger.