North Korea  

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North Korea


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22,224,195 (July 2002 est.)


North Korean won (KPW)

Kim Jong-il

Update No: 038 - (29/06/06)

Missile mysteries
A single issue dominated the news regarding North Korea during June. As early as May 19, press stories in Japan claimed that a Taepodong-2 long range missile was being prepared for firing at a launch site at Musudan-ri in the northeast of the country. Concern grew all the more with reports that the rocket had been fuelled; as defuelling is hazardous, this was said to render a launch almost inevitable. The US and Japanese governments made threats, while China, South Korea and Russia expressed concern. Pyongyang neither confirmed nor denied the matter, but affirmed its right to test. As of late June the 110-foot rocket remained earthbound on its gantry. While urgent diplomatic consultations continued - South Korea's foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, went to Beijing on June 26 - there was a sense that the risk of an actual launch was receding; although with North Korea surprise is ever of the essence.

Cause for concern
In principle there were good grounds for concern. Tests of smaller missiles are routine, but this would be the first launch of an ICBM since August 1998 - when, without warning, a 3-stage Taepodong-1 rocket hurtled into space over Japan. Bigger than anything the DPRK had been known to possess, bits of this were said to have been recovered close to Alaska. Pyongyang claimed to have put a satellite in orbit. If so it was invisible to outsiders, but the consensus is that this was a failed satellite launch - but also a test of a rocket which equally could have military use as a ballistic missile. North Korea is not given to admitting failure.

History may record that first - and so far only - Taepodong as an own goal. The shock was a major factor in shifting Japanese opinion away from post-1945 pacifism to countenance a more active defence posture and closer military cooperation with the US - where it came as a boon to advocates of national missile defence (NMD). Neither result can be said to have rendered North Korea more secure, so one may well wonder what Kim Jong-il's goal was.

1998 or 1999?
The same question arises now. For an answer, we should perhaps look less to 1998 than the year following. For much of the summer of 1999, preparations for another Taepodong test seemed to be under way. Then as now, the source for all this was whatever data from US and other spy satellites the authorities chose to publicize. While North Korea hides most of its military secrets underground in an extensive network of tunnels and caves, it lacks the technology to bury an ICBM in a bunker. So Kim Jong-il well knows that a Taepodong test and preparations therefor must be conducted in full view of his enemies' spies in the sky.

In 1999, the result - and in retrospect, surely the aim - was to draw the US into talks about missiles. The Clinton administration had already signed an Agreed Framework (AF) with the DPRK in October 1994, which defused the first North Korean nuclear crisis after some hairy moments earlier that year (see Background). Engagement was now extended to the separate, but obviously related, area of missiles. Unlike the nuclear weapons which at that stage it denied having, but now boasts of (though none has ever been tested), North Korea not only admits possessing all manner of missiles, but has explicitly said that it would give them up - if suitably compensated. Missile sales to the likes of Iran, Pakistan, Syria et al. are thought to be a major income source, for a regime which otherwise produces little that is saleable on world markets. Though this trade is not illegal, as the DPRK has not signed the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), proliferation concerns to global hotspots animated Washington no less than reining in the direct threat posed by North Korea itself.

It almost happened. By late 2000 a deal was close, and Bill Clinton was ready to go to Pyongyang to sign it. But Israel-Palestine flared up, time ran out, and the incoming George W Bush administration - whose watchword, wags said, was ABC: Anything But Clinton - not only abandoned missile talks but initially eschewed all contact with a regime which in 2002 the president notoriously characterized as part of an "axis of evil." The nuclear issue soon flared up again, becoming the predominant focus of attention. But meanwhile North Korea has maintained the moratorium on long range missile tests that it declared in 1999.

Disarray in DC
Whatever Kim Jong-il's exact motives are now, he must find gratifying the hornet's nest he has stirred up in Washington. In a think-tank community where many are exasperated with Bush's failure, five years on, to devise a consistent, workable strategy on North Korea, the administration's reactions were rapidly shot down. Thus threats of a firm response if the missile is fired drew scepticism as to whether the US has any real leverage on Kim Jong-il; beyond the squeeze on his finances in Macau already in place, but arguably backfiring in giving him a fresh excuse to boycott the six-party nuclear talks. Indeed, one missile motive now may well be to express his annoyance at this. Another could be dudgeon that a recent US policy shift on Iran seems in principle to offer Tehran a better deal, including a right to peaceful nuclear energy which Washington does not allow North Korea (because it abused this in the past). Still another reason could be sheer attention-seeking: to put North Korea back in the headlines and on the front page. If so, this has certainly succeeded.

There was derision too at off-the-record hints from the Pentagon that NMD might actually be deployed for the first time, to shoot down any missile. Critics found two problems here. One is technical. Despite expenditure of over US$90 billion to date, it is unclear if NMD actually works: only one test intercept has succeeded, against several failures. To fire and miss would be a huge loss of face. (Similar concerns may yet stay Kim Jong-il's hand too.) 

Technology's limits were also exposed in the continuing confusion as to whether fuelling has or has not occurred. Tankers were seen in the vicinity, but beyond that matters are not clear-cut. Whatever the camera catches has then to be interpreted: a less exact science.

They might have the right
Besides technical issues, there are legal ones. A Taepodong is unsettling, yet breaks no law. Provided North Korea gave notice (as it did not in 1998), and especially if it again posits this as part of a space programme, it may be within its rights. So the US can huff and puff, but lacks either legal grounds or technical means to do anything about it. Indeed, some in Washington actively hoped to see the missile fly: whether for the data on specifications and performance a test would offer, or politically on the assumption that this would be another own goal which would anger Kim Jong-il's quasi-protectors in Seoul, Beijing and Moscow.

The most startling suggestion came from William Perry, who under Clinton conducted a policy review and was a special envoy to North Korea, later becoming defence secretary. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Perry and a colleague advocated bombing the Taepodong on its launchpad as a clear and present danger. This drew universal disapproval, including a swift demurral from the government. Critics disputed Perry's premise that this could be a limited one-off action; arguing rather that Kim Jong-il would feel bound to retaliate, and could inflict great damage on Tokyo and/or Seoul, precipitating a new Korean War.

A Republican shift
This odd Dr Strangelove turn by a hitherto respected statesman - and a Democrat to boot - helped more sober opinion crystallize and coalesce. The same day (June 22), the Senate Armed Services Committee accepted a Democrat amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, requiring the appointment of a special coordinator on North Korea policy. This will now go to the House. A senior Republican senator, Richard Lugar, called on June 25 for intensified diplomacy with Pyongyang; his colleague Chuck Hagel demanded direct talks. 

The Bush administration has consistently opposed any bilateral contacts, except within the six-party nuclear talks. These are currently stalled and may be moribund, having not met substantively since last September. But with Republicans in Congress shifting in favour of direct dialogue with North Korea, this may isolate and finally defeat the hardliners - led by vice-president Dick Cheney - who, their critics allege, have persistently sabotaged and undermined any previous occasional attempts to engage seriously with Kim Jong-il. It will be interesting, and crucial, to see how this plays out over the coming weeks and months.

Annoying the neighbours
But like much of what North Korea does, this is a gamble. Making as if to launch a missile just might bounce Bush into embracing engagement. But it could also backfire, especially if a test actually takes place - and perhaps even if it does not, by upsetting too many people.

In Japan, for instance, with which ties were already at rock-bottom over the still unresolved abductions issue, this latest missile scare has given various contenders to succeed Junichiro Koizumi as prime minister ample opportunity for tub-thumping. North Korea-bashing plays well in Japan, and vice versa. Thus on June 25 the foreign minister, Taro Aso, told NHK that "all options are on the table," including oil and food sanctions. On June 16 the Diet had passed a bill imposing sanctions if there is no headway on kidnaps; while on June 26 came news that Tokyo has agreed to the deployment of advanced PAC-3 interceptor missiles at US bases in Japan for the first time. None of this exactly makes Kim Jong-il more secure.

If insouciant of Japanese reactions, the dear leader may pay more heed to the three other neighbours who in effect protect him by resisting the hard line emanating from Washington and Tokyo. China, Russia and South Korea have all reacted firmly to the Taepodong threat. Beijing initially called for calm in its usual even-handed way - which riles the US, since it implies they are equally responsible - but on June 21 its UN ambassador, Wang Guangya, said a missile launch would be "very negative." Two days later Russia's foreign ministry called in the DPRK ambassador in Moscow, Pak Ui-chun, and warned him against taking any steps that might destabilize the region and jeopardize nuclear negotiations.

Sunshine snuffed?
Perhaps most serious is the Taepodong's impact on South Korea. If not quite the straw that breaks the camel's back, it might finally cause the worm to turn. To mix metaphors further, Seoul's sunshine policy, having burned steadily ever since Kim Dae-jung became president in 1998, has begun to flicker of late. Opposition and other criticisms that the North simply takes what the South gives, with scant reciprocity, are starting to hit home. There was real anger in May when the North abruptly cancelled already long-delayed test train runs on two reconnected crossborder railways. The track has been physically ready for months, but the Korean People's Army (KPA) is thought to oppose too much traffic across what remains its frontline: the once impermeable and still heavily defended Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). 

The government of president Roh Moo-hyun, whose centre-left Uri party was hammered by the conservative opposition Grand National Party (GNP) in local elections on May 31, can no longer afford to look soft. Hence responses to the missile have displayed a steeliness rare hitherto in Seoul. The unification minister, Lee Jong-seok, warned that additional aid to the North would be reconsidered: no idle threat, since fertilizer deliveries are incomplete and this year's usual 500,000 tons of much needed rice has yet to be agreed. Kim Jong-il would be ill advised to cut off his nose to spite his face. Ex-president Kim Dae-jung, due to go North to mark the sixth anniversary of his breakthrough summit with the dear leader, felt obliged to cancel his trip because of the missile crisis. But other inter-Korean exchanges, such as family reunions, carried on as normal. 

In sum: while an actual missile launch now seems less likely, even unfired this Taepodong has made waves, and may yet make more. It remains to be seen if these can propel matters into a new and more positive phase, especially as regards US-DPRK relations; or whether the result will simply be even choppier waters around the peninsula than before.

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