North Korea Dresses Up Planned Test of Long-Range Missile as a Space Project

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TOKYO, Feb. 24 -- By announcing that it is preparing to launch a "communications satellite," North Korea on Tuesday dressed up its planned test of a long-range ballistic missile -- which may be able to reach Alaska -- as a benign research project.

"Outer space is an asset common to mankind, and its use for peaceful purposes has become a global trend," said a spokesman for the North Korean Committee of Space Technology.

North Korea's announcement comes amid warnings from the United States not to test the missile. A U.N. resolution, passed after North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006, bans the country from any ballistic missile activity.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that a missile test would "be very unhelpful in moving our relationship forward." During a tour of East Asia, she urged the government of Kim Jong Il to stop its "provocative actions."

North Korea appears to be setting up radar and other monitoring equipment around a missile launch site on its northeast coast, South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday. It said, however, that a missile has not yet been placed on the launchpad. The satellite would presumably be attached as the payload atop the missile.

South Korea's Defense Ministry says preparations for the launch could be completed within days, although other analysts in Seoul say North Korea has historically waited for much warmer weather before test launches.

Eleven years ago, North Korea surprised the world by firing a long-range, three-stage Taepodong-1 missile over Japan into the Pacific Ocean. Afterward, amid an international outcry, the North said it had merely exercised its right to "space development."

It claimed then that it had succeeded in launching a research satellite. The U.S. government later concluded that the missile had failed to put a satellite into orbit.

That launch and another round of North Korean missile tests in 2006 alarmed Japan, which has since invested heavily in American-made ballistic-missile defense systems. North Korea has 200 Nodong medium-range missiles that could hit anywhere in Japan, according to the Japanese Defense Ministry.

If North Korea launched another missile in the direction of Japan, it would enter airspace that is protected by Aegis antiballistic missiles, which are deployed on Japanese and U.S. Navy destroyers in the Sea of Japan and designed to intercept incoming missiles in mid-flight. As a secondary layer of defense, Tokyo is also protected by a Patriot missile system.

These systems raise the possibility that a North Korean missile -- even one advertised in advance as a peaceful space probe -- could be destroyed in flight.

Analysts say knocking down a North Korean missile could precipitate a much greater regional crisis.

"Kim Jong Il will absolutely lose face if his missile is destroyed," said Satoshi Morimoto, a professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo and a former director of security policy at Japan's Foreign Ministry. "We are afraid that the North Koreans may overreact and that there may be another launch, perhaps on South Korea."

Daniel A. Pinkston, an expert on North Korean missiles who works for the International Crisis Group, said Kim's government has much to gain and little to lose from launching a satellite as the payload atop its long-range missile, especially if it gets shot down by an American-made weapon.

"I see this as a no-brainer for the North Koreans," Pinkston said. "All the indications are that they are likely to go forward with this. I don't think people see how serious the implications are. They are all bad for the United States."

He said that if the missile was shot down, it would give North Korea an excuse to back out of long-running negotiations with the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia over dismantling its nuclear weapons program.

"The North could say, 'Why should we denuclearize? This just shows hostile intent,' " Pinkston said. "The best thing is no launch or the thing blows up on the launchpad. All the other scenarios are bad."

North Korea's planned missile launch comes at a time of deteriorating relations between North and South Korea.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak last year ended a decade of policies designed to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Lee's predecessors had given Kim's government large amounts of food, fertilizer and trade concessions, all without conditions and without asking questions about nuclear weapons, missile proliferation or human rights abuses.

Chronically hungry North Korea has received virtually no food or fertilizer since Lee came to power last year. In response, North Korea has called Lee a "fascist," canceled all military and political agreements with the South and made frequent references to the possibility of war.

Analysts in Seoul speculate that North Korea is making a public show of launching a missile to attract attention from the Obama administration.

Officials in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, have said they would like to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Washington.

Over the years, North Korea has provoked the United States with missile launches and a nuclear test. It has then shifted gears and negotiated for food, fuel and diplomatic concessions.

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