The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Taepodong-2 on pad
A satellite image of North Korea’s Taepodong 2 rocket on the launch pad several days before launch. (credit: Digitalglobe)

North Korea proves the point: ICBMs are proliferating

In a speech at the 2009 Missile Defense Conference General in Washington last month, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is reported to have said that “Ballistic missiles are about as passé as email.” Obviously no one told the North Koreans. His point that the challenges of putting together effective missile defense systems are bigger than ever is well taken, but the spread of these weapons and the attraction they hold for rogue states is greater than ever.

The muted reaction by the US and by the so-called international community to the missile launch on April 4th shows just how weak the world now is when faced with the aggressive and desperate dictatorship in North Korea. Coming a few months after the Iranian satellite launch this shows that the two surviving members of the “Axis of Evil” are still in business and are going to threaten world peace for the foreseeable future. Very long range missiles are going to become more common. Whether or not they are going to be equipped with nuclear warheads, the threat is going to have to be faced.

The economic crisis in Iran and the famine in North Korea ensure that these weapons will be available to anyone who wants to buy them. That means that just about any nation in the Middle East, and many in Africa and South America, will soon be able to buy missiles that can hit the US, Japan, or Europe, South Korea and Israel have long been in range. This means that a rogue state can now easily acquire the means to hit just about any target anywhere on Earth. Just to use one hypothetical example, if, for political reasons, Mozambique’s rulers wanted to get revenge for hundreds of years of Portuguese colonial rule they could buy a few of these missiles and launch them at Lisbon.

Saturday’s launch may only be a propaganda exercise, a way of proving at least to the captive audience inside its borders that the North Koreans have a fearsome military machine—in spite of the evidence of their own eyes.

One factor that has not been mentioned (or at least not very prominently) is the possibility that due to the extreme difficulty the North Korean regime has in getting the hard currency it needs to keep its military well-fed and loyal it may sell some missiles to Taiwan. This of course would hit the Chinese in a very sensitive spot: Pyongyang may imagine that it has nothing to lose and that Beijing would swallow the affront rather than see the regime collapse. Taiwan may imagine that it can afford to ignore American concerns because the US has refused to provide them with the F-16s they requested. The scope for miscalculation and overreaching is pretty large and may get bigger.

Japan has indicated that they are considering new sanctions against North Korea. It seems doubtful that the UN Security Council will be able to agree on anything more than another empty gesture. While it is possible that Tokyo may be able to come up with a way to harm the regime in some small way, it is doubtful that by themselves, or even jointly with South Korea and the US, that they will be able to have much on an impact. However, if both Japan and South Korea were to accept the fact that Pyongyang’s missile program is organically linked with that of Tehran, and if they were prepared to follow the logic of this fact, they would apply sanctions to Iran as well. These would have a far greater impact on both nations’ missile development programs than if they and their western allies were simply to apply uncoordinated restrictions on the North Koreans.

Saturday’s launch may only be a propaganda exercise, a way of proving at least to the captive audience inside its borders that the North Koreans have a fearsome military machine—in spite of the evidence of their own eyes. Famine and disease may dominate the everyday lives of the people, but the regime may believe that launching a satellite will somehow make the people feel better about the government. However the real motive may owe more to salesmanship than to politics.

Even if the performance of the Taepodong 2 (renamed the Unha 2 for the occasion) is only about 6,000 kilometers as one expert claimed (or if it is 15,000 kilometers as another one reported) they hope to market as many as possible. They may do better selling parts such as rocket engines, fuel tanks, and guidance systems which can then be assembled into operational missiles at the buyers convenience. The very fact that they were able to get the UN Security Council to go into emergency session may be an additional selling point.

The weak reaction of President Obama, who is promising disarmament while North Korea, Russia, China, France, and the UK, are all either building or making plans to build new nuclear missiles, invites more trouble. George Bush certainly failed to prevent this crisis, even though he can scarcely be accused of not giving diplomacy a chance. This crisis has in fact been ongoing since the Korean War ended in 1953. No US president can be expected to resolve it; they can only be asked to manage it in ways that preserve the peace and the freedom of our allies in Northeast Asia, which above all that means being strong and steady in the face of North Korea’s gesticulations and angry threats.

This should mean that the Obama administration should reconsider its plans to cut the missile defense budget and should demand that North Korea be verifiably denuclearized before accepting any cuts whatsoever in the US nuclear arsenal. The 2002–2003 cuts made by the Bush Administration should be the last ones for a very long time, certainly until the need for a credible, robust, and reliable nuclear deterrent ceases to exist. That will only happen when there is no longer a need to deal with major potential enemies as well as with new nuclear states and, most importantly, the US has a strong and multilayered missile defense complex.