By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 27, 2009
SEOUL -- North Korea moved a long-range missile to a launchpad this week and plans to send it into space in early April in defiance of repeated international warnings.
While North Korea has been making missiles to intimidate its neighbors for nearly half a century, what makes this launch particularly worrying is the increasing possibility -- as assessed by U.S. intelligence and some independent experts -- that it has built or is attempting to build nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop its growing number of missiles.
North Korea "may be able to successfully mate a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile," Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said this month in testimony prepared for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
David Albright, a physicist and nuclear weapons expert who runs the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, has written that North Korea is "likely able to build a crude nuclear warhead" for its midrange missiles that target Japan.
Experts agree that North Korea is probably years away from putting nuclear warheads on long-range missiles that could hit the United States.
"North Korea's nuclear strategy is to keep everyone confused, keep everyone wondering," Albright said.
The country's founding dictator, the late Kim Il Sung, created a military academy 44 years ago to "nurture" missile builders, ordering them to make weapons that could strike Japan and "prevent" the United States from meddling on the Korean Peninsula.
Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong Il, has continued to nurture the missilemakers, who have built more than 200 Nodong missiles capable of hitting most of Japan.
The Kim dynasty's commitment to missiles continues to rattle nerves, with Japan and South Korea repeatedly protesting as North Korea moves closer to the planned launch of its new long-range missile.
North Korea says it plans to put a communications satellite into orbit, but that claim is widely viewed as a pretext for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2. The U.S. director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, told a Senate committee that a three-stage missile of this type, if it works, could strike the continental United States.
"Most of the world understands the game they're playing," Blair said, adding that North Korea "risks international opprobrium and hopefully worse" if the launch proceeds.
If the international community sanctions North Korea for the launch, Pyongyang threatened this week to abrogate an agreement with the United States and five other countries to abandon nuclear weapons in return for aid and other concessions. It has also threatened to go to war, if what it calls its peaceful research launch is shot down.
North Korea exploded a small nuclear device in 2006 and has since declared it has "weaponized" its entire plutonium stockpile, which it says totals 57 pounds -- enough, experts say, to build four or five bombs. But it is another major technical step to miniaturize these bombs for missile delivery. Scientists and governments disagree about how far North Korea has gone toward this goal.
The governments of South Korea and Japan both say North Korea has not succeeded in miniaturizing nuclear warheads.
But Japan's Defense Ministry has concluded that the North may be getting close. "We cannot deny that North Korea will probably be able to do that in a short period of time," said Atsuo Suzuki, director of the ministry's defense intelligence division. And South Korea's foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, told reporters that North Korea's push to develop "long-range missile capability after a nuclear test is literally [making] weapons of mass destruction."
North Korea's test of a nuclear device in 2006 produced such a small explosion that it was probably only a partial success, according to Theodore Postol, a professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Based on this one test of a nuclear device, Postol said, it is "not credible" that North Korea could have succeeded in less than three years in miniaturizing "an advance design" nuclear warhead. But he said there is a remote possibility that North Korea has made a warhead of an untested crude design that could produce a relatively small nuclear explosion, akin to its 2006 test. It would be the equivalent of exploding several hundred tons of TNT, as compared with the exponentially more destructive 25-kiloton blast of an advanced nuclear warhead.
Postol estimates that it is possible for North Korea to make a warhead that is small and light enough to be mounted on a Nodong missile, which has a diameter of about four feet and can carry a payload of about 2,200 pounds. "It would be a very inefficient way to use a weapon," he said. "But if you are desperate enough, I think such a weapon would certainly have deterrent capability. Tokyo is a large enough target to be relatively sure that a non-full-yield weapon would still cause tremendous death and destruction."'They Want Rewards'
North Korea's missiles are inaccurate and decades out of date by the rocket-science standards of the United States, Russia and China. Most of its more than 800 missiles are believed to be modified versions of the Scud, a Soviet-era weapon with rocket motors and guidance systems that date from the 1950s.
The Scud was never intended to be a precision weapon. Iraq's Saddam Hussein sprayed dozens of them around Israel in the Persian Gulf War to terrorize civilians and provoke the government. Similarly, pinpoint accuracy is hardly the point of North Korea's missile program, analysts say.
"Even with very low accuracy, that is sufficient to create fear in civilian society," said Cha Du-hyeogn, a research fellow at the government-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul. "The leaders of North Korea are not madmen. They have their own reasoning. They want attention, and they want rewards for not using these weapons."
Missilemaking in North Korea has been sufficiently menacing -- and marketable -- to qualify as one of the few successful industries in the history of the secretive communist country, where a command-style economy has largely collapsed and chronic food shortages cause widespread malnutrition. In 1999, the North halted missile tests to negotiate improved ties with the Clinton administration, but talks were suspended after the election of George W. Bush.
Despite its poverty, North Korea has made itself into the "greatest supplier of missiles, missile components and related technologies" in the developing world, according to a 2008 report for the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute by Daniel A. Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
The North has sold missiles to Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Yemen -- and earned hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a 2006 report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. The report says the North's "earliest and most loyal customer for missiles and missile technology has been Iran."
Last month, Iran launched a long-range Safir missile -- and succeeded in putting a small satellite into orbit -- using missile components and technical support supplied by North Korea, according to a draft report by Postol and several Russian weapons experts.
Similarly, Pakistan's mid-range Ghauri missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead, is actually a renamed North Korean Nodong, according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.Making People 'Nervous'
North Korea, though, does not itself design or manufacture the critical missile components, such as rocket motors, that have allowed it to assemble and sell missiles for the past three decades, according to military analysts. Rather, its rapid development of five different missile systems between 1987 and 1992 was made possible by a massive spillage of parts, technology and human expertise out of the collapsing Soviet Union.
South Korea announced last month that the North has deployed a new midrange missile that can strike as far as 1,856 miles, allowing it to reach the U.S. territory of Guam. That missile is probably a modified version of a 1960s-era Soviet submarine-launched missile called the SS-N-6, according to Postol.
That missile uses a more powerful propellant and lighter alloys than previous Soviet-made weapons that have found their way to North Korea. Components from the SS-N-6 could provide substantially greater range and larger payloads to the North's multistage intercontinental ballistic missiles, Postol said.
North Korea terrified Japan and surprised the world in 1998 by launching a long-range missile that flew over Japan and into the Pacific.
Because another North Korean long-range test missile failed shortly after takeoff in 2006, Japan has purchased a Patriot missile-defense system to protect Tokyo and, with the United States, has deployed Aegis antiballistic missiles on destroyers in the Sea of Japan.
Japanese military officials say the two systems would probably not protect Japan completely if North Korea chose to launch a large number of Nodongs. But the Aegis systems, together with other U.S.-made anti-missile systems, could destroy in flight the missile that North Korea is planning to launch in April.
The head of the U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, told ABC News last month that if it appears North Korea is launching something other than a satellite, "we'll be ready to respond."
Since then, North Korea has warned that if its missile -- which it insists is a space launch with peaceful objectives -- is shot down, it will retaliate with massive power.
"Shooting our satellite for peaceful purposes will precisely mean a war," said a spokesman for the General Staff of the Korean People's Army.
"The North Koreans will not do anything that can expand into total war," said Song Young-sun, a South Korean lawmaker who worked for years as a missile analyst at a government-funded research institution in Seoul. They want attention, economic assistance and "to make people nervous," she said.
Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington and special correspondents Stella Kim in Seoul and Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report.