By Richard Weitz
North Korea’s ballistic missile program has complicated the negotiations seeking to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula and achieve a comprehensive peace treaty for the Peninsula.
Despite the recent failure, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is slowly improving the number, range, and capabilities of its missiles. Its ability to target more missiles at more countries, as well as its seeming willingness to sell missiles and missile-related technologies to any foreign buyer, has alarmed much of the international community.
North Korea’s ability to produce nuclear weapons using its longstanding plutonium reprocessing and its newly unveiled uranium enrichment capacities, combined with continued progress in developing long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental United States, will soon expose the U.S. homeland to the danger of nuclear missile strikes from North Korea.
The DPRK exploded nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009 launched long-range missile tests in 1998, 2006 and 2009, with each launch traveling farther than the previous one. If current trends continue, the DPRK will eventually be able to place a nuclear warhead on a functional intercontinental ballistic missile.
Although the United States officially tolerates a mutual deterrence relationship with the China, along with Russia, such a relationship has always been excluded with North Korea. If the United States were to be vulnerable to a North Korean nuclear strike, then the credibility of its extended deterrence guarantees to its Asian allies would be called into question.
South Koreans and Japanese could legitimately doubt that the U.S. officials would defend them against a DPRK attack if North Korea could destroy Los Angeles in retaliation.
They could decide to acquire their own nuclear deterrent, whose use in response to an attack against them would be much more credible than that of a third party.
North Korea produces large numbers of ballistic missiles.
Pyongyang uses them to enhance its own strike capabilities, compensating for its weak air force, as well as to sell to foreign buyers. The DPRK has developed several ballistic missiles types, of varying ranges and capabilities, which may be able to deliver nuclear warheads to targets in South Korea and Japan. Under the guise of developing a space launch vehicle, the DPRK is working on an intercontinental-range missile capable of hitting targets as far as California and Alaska.
The current focus of the DPRK’s WMD-related research and development efforts is on making warheads sufficiently small and secure that they can carry nuclear or other dangerous agents on North Korea’s improving ballistic missile capacities.
The DPRK has yet to demonstrate that it has manufactured a functional nuclear warhead that can fly long distances safely atop a ballistic missile, but such a task is not especially difficult, given enough time. Among other variables, it depends on whether North Korea has been able to obtain one of the already tested designs for a warhead that the A. Q. Khan illicit trafficking network was selling on the black market, which would accelerate its progress.
There is little indication that the DPRK leadership has developed a doctrine for actually employing its nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles in combat. Rather, North Korean leaders fundamentally view nuclear weapons and ballistic as a means of elevating their prestige and legitimacy at home as well as the DPRK’s influence and status in the international arena.
A more immediate danger, evident for some time, is how North Korea has been contributing to the horizontal proliferation of nuclear, ballistic missile, and other dangerous technologies to regimes of proliferation concern.
The fear is that, for financial profit or barter, the DPRK would transfer WMD-related technologies to other rogue states or terrorists. This problem has already occurred; there is considerable evidence that the DPRK has assisted Syria, Libya, and other countries to develop WMD-related technologies and their means of delivery.
During the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration tried to get Pyongyang to commit to end its missile testing, but could only secure an informal moratorium on further long-range DPRK missile launches. The DPRK unilaterally ended the moratorium a decade later.
In both 2006 and 2009, Pyongyong resumed testing its long-range ballistic missiles, leading the UN Security Council to impose additional sanctions on North Korea. On both occasions, North Korea responded with aggressive rhetoric and the testing of a nuclear explosive device.
The most recent missile crisis arose on Friday, when North Korea launched a rocket that closely resembled its Taepodong-2, a two- or three-stage missile with a designed range of almost 7,000 km and an estimated warhead payload of 650 to 1,000 kilograms, depending on the travel distance sought. (In general, the lighter the warhead, the farther the missile can fly). With a reduced payload, the missile might be able to travel 10,000 km, which would put the western United States within its range.
When the DPRK was visibly preparing to resume launching long-range ballistic missiles before April under the guise of testing space launch vehicles, its five main negotiating partners and other countries threatened and pleaded with Pyongyang to refrain from such action. The United States and its allies argued that the launch would violate a Security Council ban on North Korean missile-related activities. They threatened to impose new sanctions should the launch occur.
Seeking to avoid another round of sanctions, Chinese and Russian officials urged North Korean restraint.
The DPRK ignored these and other international entreaties and warnings. After what the North Koreans termed their “space rocket” apparently fell harmlessly into the sea, Russia, the United States, and the other permanent UNSC members are engaging in tough negotiations on how to respond.
The United States has already decided to cancel its recent offer to provide food aid and other assistance to the new North Korean government since it had violated the U.S. requirement for a further moratorium on missile testing. According to the U.S. interpretation of the February 29 “Leap Day Deal,” North Korea agreed to suspend launching long-range missiles or testing nuclear explosive devices as well as suspend nuclear activities at its Yongbyon complex and invite inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), absent from the DPRK since 2009, to return.
The governments of China and Russia are also eager to end North Korea’s ballistic missile tests. They do not fear that the DPRK would use these weapons against them any time soon, but they do worry that these ostentatious displays of North Korea’s improving missile and nuclear capacities will further encourage the United States, Japan, Taiwan and other states to develop missile defenses that in turn will weaken the effectiveness of their won ballistic missile arsenals.
Beijing is especially concerned. China’s increasingly sophisticated missiles represent a core element of its national security strategy. It has deployed over one thousand intermediate-range missiles within distance of Taiwan to deter, and if necessary punish, Taipei from pursuing policies objectionable to Beijing.
In addition, PRC strategists see their strengthening missile capabilities as a decisive instrument in implementing China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy against the United States.
The Chinese military seeks the ability to target any American military forces, including aircraft carriers, which attempt to defend Taiwan or otherwise confront Chinese forces.
As a last resort, the PRC relies on its long-range strategic ballistic missiles to deter the United States from employing its own nuclear forces against China.
Russian leaders have also sought to constrain North Korea’s testing of long-range ballistic missiles. The DPRK’s ballistic missile launches, originally based on Soviet-era weapons technology, has presented a major security problem for Russia because of their proximity to Russian territory and their inaccuracy. In July 2006, North Korea launched seven missiles that landed in the Sea of Japan within Russia’s 200-nautical miles (370 km) exclusive economic zone. One missile apparently veered off course and landed near the Russian port of Nakhoda. Russia’s most important Pacific coast city and the main port of the Russia’s Pacific Feet, Vladivostok, is located only 140 kilometers from North Korean territory. President Medvedev has cited North Korea’s missile launches as well as its nuclear weapons tests as a “concern for us” given that, “We are located in close proximity to this country.”
A major Russian goal in East Asia is to prevent DPRK actions from encouraging other countries, either through emulation or for defensive reasons, to pursue their own offensive and defensive strategic weapons, especially nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and ballistic missile defenses.
As a matter of principle, Russian government representatives stress their support for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which legitimizes Russia’s status as one of the few nuclear weapons states. More pragmatically, Russian policy makers have opposed North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons for fear it might induce South Korea, Japan, and perhaps other countries to pursue their own nuclear forces, which under some contingencies might be used against Russia.
They further fear that North Korea’s ostentatious displays of its improving missile and nuclear capacities will encourage the United States, Japan, and other states to develop missile defenses that in turn could be used to negate Russian missiles.