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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

North Korea: Missile Tests and Regional Impacts

By Rodger Baker, STRATFOR

North Korea has done it again. A week after it tested seven missiles, including the long-range Taepodong-2, a resolution condemning its actions has stalled in the U.N. Security Council (UNSC), South Korea is criticizing Japan for hyping the launch, Japan is openly discussing changes to its constitutional military restrictions, and the United States is asking China to use its negotiating capabilities to bring some stability to the situation. If North Korea was largely marginalized leading into July, it is now once again the center of attention -- and controversy.

Defying repeated warnings from the United States, Japan, South Korea and even Russia and China, North Korea launched not one but seven missiles, early July 5 local time. Most were short- or medium-range Hwasong or Nodong missiles; the first launch was timed to coincide with the Independence Day launch of space shuttle Discovery in Florida. But it was the third missile, the long-range Taepodong-2 -- believed to be capable of striking Alaska or Hawaii -- that garnered the most attention.

Pyongyang accomplished quite a bit with the July 5 launches. First and foremost, it has shocked the world with multiple tests while managing to avoid a military confrontation with the United States. It has been able to gauge the effectiveness of improvements in its ballistic missile program -- particularly with the short- and medium-range models that pose a more significant threat to regional security than the Taepodong-2. And it has once again exposed and exploited rifts in Washington's Northeast Asian alliance structure.

Moreover, with disagreements stalling any actions against North Korea at the U.N. Security Council, it is China that appears poised to gain the most from Pyongyang's actions.

Taepodong Failure and U.S. Relief

North Korea had placed the Taepodong-2 on its launch platform more than a month prior to the test launch, as if posing it for U.S. spy satellites and reconnaissance aircraft. Several times, Japan or others announced that a launch was imminent, and each time there was a corresponding cry for restraint, and increasingly overt threats from the United States and Japan -- including calls to shoot the missile down in midflight or even strike it before it left the launchpad.

When the Taepodong-2 finally lifted off, at shortly after 5 a.m. local time, it produced more of a fizzle than a bang. The missile didn't fly over Japan. It didn't place a satellite into orbit. It didn't fulfill a bold, unofficial threat by Pyongyang and land off the coast of New York. In fact, it flew within parameters for just 40 seconds, before either breaking up or suffering engine troubles and veering off course. It landed in the waters between North Korea, Japan and Russia a few minutes later.

The failure was quickly labeled by international media, observers and U.S. officials as an embarrassment to the North Korean regime and a demonstration that Pyongyang lacks the wherewithal to pull off a successful test or to threaten the United States. The additional six missiles were written off as little more than upgraded, inaccurate, short-range SCUD missiles. The initial condescension towards North Korea's technical capabilities was coupled with condemnation of the tests and contradictory recommendations for follow-on actions.

But not all the details of the missile's flight path are clear. According to some reports, the missile performed normally for some 40-42 seconds, burned out and fell into the ocean. Other reports suggest a catastrophic failure, fragmentation of the rocket or a fire. Some estimates put the total flight time at around two minutes, while the South Koreans have said total flight time was seven minutes -- during which the missile traveled 499 kilometers from its launch facility.

Given the available information, it is very likely that the missile suffered system damage during the most critical and stressful part of the launch. This is certainly the picture the United States is projecting, and apparently with some relief. In the weeks leading up to the launch, Washington had touted the strengths of the U.S. missile defense system, moved tests forward on the calendar and warned that the option of shooting down the Taepodong-2 was clearly on the table. The failure of North Korea's missile, however, kept Washington from having to make the difficult decision of whether to carry through with that threat and shoot it down in flight.

There were real reservations about acting on those threats. First, while Washington has confidence in the missile defense system, that confidence is not 100 percent. If North Korea had fired its missile and a U.S. intercept failed, it would be the U.S. Defense Department and the Bush administration with pie on its face. More importantly, such a failure could undermine whatever psychological deterrent the missile defense system currently provides.

But perhaps even more troubling for Washington was the prospect that a strike against the North Korean missile would succeed. First, there is a question of where the intercept would take place -- and where the debris would fall. But the second question is how North Korea would respond. Pyongyang has one key consideration in its actions: ensuring regime survival. North Korea structures its defense force and projects a prickly personality in order to dissuade the United States or others from attacking. But Pyongyang knows that its capabilities are limited and that, in a war with the United States, it ultimately would lose.

Though it feels threatened by Washington, the North Korean leadership does not view launching an offensive war as a logical act. North Korea is outgunned and outclassed by the United States; launching an invasion of South Korea or an attack on Japan or the United States would be a surefire way to ensure regime change in Pyongyang. If Washington shot down its missile, however, the North Korean elite might view that as a guarantee of imminent U.S. military action -- and Pyongyang might strike out at its neighbors to inflict as much pain as possible, seeking to disrupt any U.S. invasion or attack plans.

But even barring such a reaction, allowing its missile to be shot out of the sky by the U.S. military would trigger significant stresses for North Korea -- both within the elite and from the broader military and society. The regime would question whether it could maintain cohesion and stability without retaliating. For Washington, then, either a failure or a success of the U.S. missile defense system could lead to open hostilities in Northeast Asia. The best thing Washington could have hoped for was that North Korea's missile would fail -- even before the button would have had to be pushed for the intercept.

And Pyongyang knew this as well.

A Scrubbed Launch?

There is some possibility that North Korea intentionally scrubbed the launch. On the one hand, simply putting the missile away after leaving it on the pad for more than a month would have been viewed as capitulation -- and that could have weakened the internal cohesion of the regime. A launch became necessary practically as soon as the missile was rolled out (unless Washington had given in to Pyongyang's calls for bilateral talks).

But on the other hand, while North Korea has always walked close to the line, it has been very careful not to cross it. A successful Taepodong-2 test could have shifted the strategic calculation of Japan or the United States toward North Korea. Tokyo already had warned that if any part of the Taepodong-2 fell on Japanese territory, it would be considered an act of war. And while Washington has been relatively lax toward North Korea, aside from rhetoric and the occasional economic lever, all bets would be off should North Korea demonstrate the ability to pose a concrete threat to the U.S. mainland.

For Pyongyang, a controlled launch failure presented a better outcome than risking an accident or simply putting away the long-range toy. A picture-perfect satellite launch would have been the best outcome, but it is questionable whether North Korea actually believed it would be able to pull one off. After all, few space programs have ever managed to develop new systems without many failures along the way.

Other Missiles and Regional Tensions

Whether Pyongyang failed to succeed or succeeded to fail, the Taepodong-2 was not the only missile launched that morning. There were many motives behind North Korea's additional launches. First, everyone was already expecting a Taepodong-2 launch; if Pyongyang had launched only that rocket, the psychological impact already would have been discounted. There would be little leverage. Second, if the North Koreans knew they would scrub the Taepodong-2 launch, they would want to demonstrate a variety of capabilities to cover for the failure.

Finally, and more significantly, North Korea is intending again to trade its missile launches for concessions from its neighbors and the United States. If a moratorium on missile tests is coming anyway, this launch represented a final chance to assess improvements to North Korea's missile systems, particularly as the country so rarely tests its ballistic missiles. Testing six short- and intermediate-range Hwasong and Nodong missiles -- the real bulk of North Korea's missile force -- would allow the country's military to learn more in a single day about their own capabilities and upgrades than they had in the entirety of the preceding decade.

It is these overlooked missiles that are the true face of North Korean missile technology. Pyongyang's Nodong missiles have the capability of reaching most of Japan, including U.S. bases in Okinawa. North Korea has more than 100 of these mobile missiles, making them an extremely valuable commodity. And its short-range Hwasong series can strike anywhere in South Korea and potentially parts of Japan.

The combination of short-, medium- and long-range missile tests helps to explain the political intent behind the July 5 launches. Dividing any coalition that forms against it has been a key aspect of North Korean foreign policy. The regime in Pyongyang has played skillfully on the differences in strategic thinking of trilateral allies Japan, South Korea and the United States. The current diplomatic spat between Tokyo and Seoul over the extent to which North Korea's missile tests should be dramatized is a key example of just how easily these rifts are exploited. The time and effort the United States is expending to convince the world that Washington and Seoul are on the same page is another.

Stalled at the Security Council

In the UNSC discussions, Russia is expected to abstain from any resolution to punish North Korea -- but China well might veto one, so Tokyo and Washington are delaying any vote on the issue. But though Moscow is not actively joining in attempts to have North Korea sanctioned, Russian authorities have found it difficult to conceal their frustration with Pyongyang. What is clear from initial statements, particularly about the safety of Russian ships and aircraft in the missile test zone, is that the North Koreans never bothered warning Russia before lobbing missiles off its coast.

Amid all of this, China appears to be the least fazed by the North Korean tests.

But China also may have had prior notice about the launches. Initial comments credited to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill suggest that China was notified about the tests before they occurred. Officials in Beijing have countered that they were told of the launches a few hours before North Korea formally announced them -- but still days after they actually had taken place. Either way, the Chinese once again have found the world turning to them for a solution.

Given the Security Council deadlock, China is the only viable path to negotiations with North Korea. In fact, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Bolton has said the Security Council vote was delayed so that diplomacy through China could continue. Washington and Seoul both have called for Beijing to talk to Pyongyang, and the Chinese already had conveniently arranged for a relatively high-level delegation to visit North Korea.

For China, the missile launches have reinforced Beijing's importance to the United States and even Japan. Neither Washington nor Tokyo is prepared to strike back at North Korea militarily -- over either the missile tests or the ongoing nuclear crisis. Both have opted for sanctions and attempts to isolate North Korea, but these paths require the assistance and participation of South Korea and China. And even if Seoul were fully on board, China would remain as North Korea's primary lifeline. China can undermine any U.S. efforts to isolate or punish Pyongyang -- or it can facilitate dialogue.

In the weeks leading up to the missile tests, Beijing had proposed various ways to restart the stalled six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program -- talks from which both Washington and Pyongyang had basically walked away. As the primary coordinator and host of the talks, Beijing has leverage with all the participants -- but China found few takers (aside from South Korea) for its recent proposals. All of that changed, however, when North Korea actually tested the missiles. Washington sent envoys to Beijing and held out the possibility of bilateral talks with Pyongyang (which North Korea has demanded in order to discuss economic sanctions and frozen assets) on the sidelines of the six-party discussions.

While it is not certain that China facilitated the North Korean missile tests, it does seem that Pyongyang was certain the tests wouldn't trigger China to turn on it. If Beijing were truly upset, it could make that rather clear to North Korea in very painful ways. It hasn't. Rather, the Chinese have called on all parties to return to dialogue -- dialogue facilitated by and benefiting China. Meanwhile, North Korea is sitting back and studying the deadlock at the U.N. Security Council, the cracks in the U.S.-South Korea-Japan alliance, and the fact that the world's attention has again turned back toward Pyongyang.


North Korea considered its 1998 Taepodong-1 launch a brilliant success. Only two years later, Pyongyang had gone from being an international outcast and sidelined nation to the center of diplomatic activity -- with normalized relations across Europe and with Canada and Australia. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il hosted then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in Pyongyang for the first ever inter-Korean summit in 2000. North Korea gained economic and diplomatic ties and began to break past the constraints of a relationship that had been based primarily on U.S. pressure and Chinese handouts.

Pyongyang sees the same sorts of benefits in its future this time around. It has grown expert at creating artificial crises, from which it reaps economic and political benefits in exchange for merely maintaining the status quo.

In recent years, Washington has attempted to simply ignore North Korea rather than giving in to its temper fits. After all, if a kid in a toy store holds his breath while demanding that a parent buy a new toy, doing so only encourages the behavior -- whereas waiting for the kid to pass out and then start breathing again puts the kibosh on the temper fits. Or at least, that is the theory.

But North Korea always has an extra ace up its sleeve: geography. If the issue were only between North Korea and the United States, Pyongyang would have been ignored into submission years ago. But while its Taepodong-2 failed, its regional missiles proved quite effective. And neither Seoul nor Tokyo can feel as confident as Washington that North Korea really won't do something too crazy if left to stew in its own isolation. When Washington turns a deaf ear, Pyongyang pokes Tokyo and Seoul -- and when they cry out, the United States is drawn back in.

And until a new option is found to be effective, it seems that Beijing is destined to benefit -- as the only voice that can soothe the savage North Korea.
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