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Concerns Rife Despite North Korean ICBM Failure

By | July 10, 2006

      By Dave Ahearn

      The failure of a long-range North Korean missile is no cause for relief, according to observers.

      While the long-range missile failed shortly into its first-stage burn, North Korea also launched a substantial number of short-and intermediate-range missiles that worked well.

      Even if North Korea can’t place a nuclear-weapon-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile on most of the United States (except perhaps Hawaii, Alaska or Seattle), the isolated rogue regime still can target important U.S. trading allies such as Japan and South Korea.

      That was the view of Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh Burke chair in strategy with the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, expressing his own views.

      North Korea may have fired the long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile that exploded, two shorter-range North Korean variants of the Scud missile, and three longer-range No Dong missiles, Cordesman noted. Others such as South Korea have reported detecting even more North Korean missile launches, he added.

      Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice confirmed the launches and termed them “provocations.” She said the United Nations Security Council is considering a response, saying that the world community has “a number of tools” that would “make it more difficult for North Korea to engage in brinksmanship.”

      North Korea launched the missiles after repeated warnings from the United States and allied nations not to fire the long-range weapon.

      While the United States missile defense shield was prepared to track and knock down the North Korean long-range missile had it threatened the United States, that became unnecessary when the missile exploded.

      Leading contractors involved in the U.S. missile defense programs include The Boeing Co. [BA] (maker of the Airborne Laser in a Boeing 747, and contributor to other programs), Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], producer of Aegis radars and guidance systems, Raytheon Co. [RTN], maker of interceptor missiles that do the actual work of knocking down incoming enemy ballistic threats, and many others.

      Despite the failure, North Korea will continue working on development of a long-range weapon, warns the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a non-partisan proponent of forming a U.S. missile defense shield.

      The action by North Korea, in the face of global warnings, demonstrates that North Korea is not “deterred by diplomacy, international pressure or, most importantly the threat of the world’s strongest military power of preemptive or retaliatory action,” the alliance noted.

      “This situation, without a doubt, requires … our country–and the world–to deploy, develop and put forward missile defense systems with urgency,” the alliance asserted.

      The long-range North Korean missile may have failed shortly after launch because of the extended time it was kept in a holding status on a launch pad, the alliance stated.

      An explosion “shortly after launch … could have been caused by the extended period of time the missile stood on the launch pad prior to lift-off,” according to the alliance. “Holding a liquid fueled missile over a period of 72 hours causes chemical deterioration within the missile and rocket motors. The North Korean [missile] was in a holding position for over three weeks.”

      In other words, had North Korea fired the long-range missile shortly after assembling and fueling it, the missile might have worked, according to the alliance.

      “We, as a world, cannot afford or accept the loss of life caused by a ballistic missile fired by an irresponsible and irrational leader simply because we do not have missile defense,” the alliance stated.

      Cordesman said North Korea has failed twice in two attempts to launch a long-range missile, and it may be years before the rogue regime develops a dependable intercontinental ballistic missile. Even then, the question would be what sort of payload a long-range missile might carry.

      Similarly, Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said that the long-range missile failure “shows their missile talk is greater than their capability. Yet this failure may cause North Korea to lose face within the Asian community and could lead to additional provocative acts.”

      There is far more at stake here than whether North Korea can strike the continental United States, Cordesman argues.

      “North Korea’s tests do, however, need to be taken seriously at a military level, although not necessarily in the way that most American media did immediately after the tests, or in the way the Bush Administration has called for,” Cordesman said.

      “It is far from clear that North Korea is any closer to a real-world capability to attack the [United States] than it was before this series of tests, or that the large missile it tested was ever intended to be any form of ICBM.”

      North Korea isn’t able to drop a huge thermonuclear weapon on Washington, he indicated.

      Rather, at most, North Korea after years of further development “would be able to launch a small fission nuclear weapon with great inaccuracy and unreliability at Alaska, and just possibly Hawaii or the upper northwest corner of the [United States]. Given its history of testing to date, it is probably around five years away from even this operational capability, although shorter times are all possible.”

      North Korea has announced it is producing nuclear weapons, which Cordesman said would be of modest size. “It may well have part of a Chinese design for a relatively light implosion fission nuclear weapon that could be carried on a missile, but no official source has indicated that it has anything like the design detail to actually build such a warhead without testing on a level intelligence would probably detect. Even in a worst case, such a warhead would probably approach [700 to 1,000] kilograms and be a comparatively low yield fission–not a boosted or thermonuclear weapon,” he estimated.

      Further, when North Korea finally does gain that capability, launching a strike against a U.S. city would be suicidal, inciting a catastrophically annihilating U.S. response, he noted.

      There also are ample questions about the missiles that North Korean launched. “No one has as yet said anything about exact range, probable warhead, accuracy, reliability, launch method, set up and reaction time, or anything else of technical value in describing military capability,” Cordesman said.

      But this doesn’t mean that North Korea doesn’t merit intense concern.

      Cordesman said North Korea, even as its missile failed, achieved a success by showing it could defy the will of the United States and other nations.

      Further, the communist regime demonstrated ample power by lighting off a flurry of shorter- or intermediate-range missiles.

      Without striking the United States, North Korea clearly wields the power to strike U.S. and allied interests, Cordesman stated.

      “Add in the fact, that North Korea has massive combat ready forces on the border with South Korea, long-range artillery that can hit [some 30 percent to 40 percent] of South Korea’s economy, massive stocks of chemical weapons, and large numbers of short range missiles and rockets that may have chemical warheads, and the regional threat rises substantially higher,” Cordesman said.

      North Korean missile provocations prove that the United States requires a ballistic missile defense, said Baker Spring, an expert with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.

      While questions remain about North Korean capabilities and intentions, a few points are clear, according to Spring.

      “First, the North Korean threat underscores the importance of a comprehensive national missile defense system, capable of defending America and her allies,” he stated in a recent policy paper.

      “Second, North Korea–or any rogue nation which refuses to abide by the customs of civilized society–should not be allowed to engage in threatening, unannounced missile launches.

      “Finally, some have suggested the United States should launch a preemptive strike at the North Korean missile launch pad. This course of action may indeed be justifiable if it was determined that the launch was threatening–if, for example, a nuclear warhead was placed on the missile,” he warned.

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