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Crib Sheet: North Korea’s Missile Tests

This article is reprinted from Campus Progress.org, the youth-oriented magazine of the Center for American Progress.

On July 4 North Korea began a series of missile flight tests that included the launch of a Taepo Dong II missile, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that some experts believe may be capable of delivering a light payload to Alaska or the West Coast. The good news is that the test ended in an embarrassing failure for North Korea when the rocket fizzled out just 42 seconds after launch. North Korea’s previous and only other attempt to test a multi-stage missile, in 1998, also ended in failure when the shorter-range Taepo Dong I—the predecessor to the Taepo Dong II—couldn’t lift its payload into orbit.

The bad news is that by carrying out such a test—and breaking a 1999 pledge not to test any missiles— North Korea has once again demonstrated that it is a reckless, temperamental regime. To make matters worse, North Korea has enough plutonium to make more than a half dozen nuclear weapons and boasts of having a “nuclear deterrent”—a threat that has grown on President Bush’s watch. The Six Party talks aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal have been stalled since September 2005, with no signs of a breakthrough.

North Korea’s missile tests were provocative, but not a direct threat to the United States. Nevertheless, the tests are a stark reminder that North Korea has grown more assertive and more dangerous since George W. Bush became president. Pumping more money into missile defense isn’t the answer, because the United States’ anti-missile technology doesn’t work. Instead, the Bush administration needs to rethink its approach to North Korea.

1. Is North Korea’s Taepo Dong II missile program an imminent threat?

No, but it is a mounting threat. North Korea will need to undertake many more flight tests of the Taepo Dong II before it could be considered even minimally reliable. In addition, many experts doubt North Korea’s boast that the missile has an intercontinental range. The United States and other countries watched North Korea’s recent test preparations from satellites and tracked the test missiles in flight. Thus, the United States would have significant advance notice if the Taepo Dong II became more reliable.

Some have argued that the July 4 tests will enable North Korea to gain valuable diagnostic data about the missile’s performance, which it could use to fine-tune its capabilities. Two analysts—former Defense Secretary William Perry and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter—recently argued that this is reason enough to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea’s missile launch facilities.

To a certain extent, it is probably true that every time North Korea tests its rudimentary Taepo Dong II, it makes incremental progress towards perfecting an intercontinental strike capability. But it is important to recognize that it takes many flight tests under varied conditions to develop a reliable weapon system. North Korea has only tested multi-stage missiles twice, and both tests ended in failure; the July 4 test was also the first time North Korea had ever tested the Taepo Dong II, its only missile with the potential to reach the United States. A preemptive strike at this juncture would be grossly dispropotionate to the minor threat that the tests posed-to say nothing of the risk that it would trigger a North Korean nuclear test or even an attack on South Korea or Japan that could kill hundreds of thousands.

2. What is North Korea’s objective behind the tests?

It isn’t known for sure what their objective is, but one prominent theory is that Kim Jong Il feels that Iran has taken center stage and that the world is ignoring North Korea. The North Koreans may also hope that provocative actions will strengthen their bargaining position in the Six Party talks and perhaps lead to bilateral negotiations between the United States and North Korea, which they have sought for some time.

In 1999 North Korea unilaterally pledged to end missile flight tests. North Korea agreed to the moratorium in significant part because the United States agreed to bilateral talks with North Korea on ending its missile program. The Bush administration, however, has refused to hold bilateral talks with North Korea since late 2002.

About a month ago, the Bush administration offered Iran the possibility of having direct talks. Like North Korea, Iran is suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons. In addition, the Bush administration had previously refused to negotiate with North Korea bilaterally, instead insisting on the Six Party talks, which include Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia. One day after the Iran offer was announced, North Korea requested bilateral talks with the United States. The Bush administration refused. North Korea began preparations for a missile launch shortly thereafter.

North Korea’s missile tests were not illegal under international law. It only violated its own pledge to halt tests. But its actions were certainly provocative, and probably intentionally so. Consider the timing of the launch: July 4, American Independence Day and the day of a space shuttle launch. As Richard Lloyd Parry of the Times of London quipped, “timing of the [North Korean] tests�???make it look very much like a two-fingered salute to the US.”

3. Will missile defense protect us if and when North Korea perfects the Taepo Dong II?

Probably not. The $92 billion missile defense system doesn’t work. It “hasn’t successfully intercepted a missile since October of 2002… And the last two times it tried to hit an oncoming missile, the interceptor didn’t even leave the ground.” More than half of scheduled tests have either ended in failure or been cancelled. (On many occasions, the administration deferred future testing because they worried that more failures would further undermine support for the program and clearly demonstrate the enormous technical hurdles that still have to be overcome). The intercept tests are tightly controlled trial runs that are far less demanding than real-life missile threats, so even the occasional test success must be put in proper perspective.

4. Is President Bush’s North Korea strategy a failure?

Absolutely. The results speak for themselves. Since President Bush came into office, North Korea has more than quadrupled its suspected stockpile of plutonium, withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—the global compact that undergirds the international nonproliferation regime—and resumed flight testing of its missiles.

The Bush administration has mishandled the matter from the start. It spurned the outgoing Clinton administration and South Korean leadership’s fledgling effort to “lur[e] North Korea out of its shell with economic incentives. Yet the isolation strategy ultimately failed: North Korea kept producing plutonium,” increasing its nuclear arsenal as U.S. officials stood by, content to launch rhetorical broadsides against North Korea. Bush then reluctantly agreed to engage North Korea at a distance through the Six Party talks.

These talks, however, have been stalled since last September. That month, North Korea agreed in principle to give up its nuclear weapons program and re-join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It soon began to backtrack on its pledge, so the United States retaliated by cracking down on alleged North Korean counterfeiting and other financial crimes. Rather than rejoin the talks, North Korea shunned them.

5. Where do we go from here?

There are no sure-fire options at this point: North Korea may decide to press ahead regardless of what the United States and its partners say or do. The United States’ best bet for restaining North Korea, however, continues to be active, smart diplomacy. The United States shouldn’t reward bad behavior by initiating direct talks immediately. It should use this event to press South Korea and China to put greater pressure on North Korea to rejoin the Six Party talks.

Once the six party talks are back on track and the United States receives greater assurances that the North Koreans are getting serious, it should consider direct talks with North Korea. Direct talks before resulted in an eight-year freeze on North Korea’s plutonium stockpile. Direct talks also produced the Bush administration’s only success in convincing a country to give up its nuclear program— Libya. And the Bush administration has finally realized in the case of Iran that direct talks are the best way to advance U.S. interests. The Bush administration should apply these lessons to North Korea.

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