What Were They Thinking?

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DONALD MACINTYRE TokyoSay this much for North Korea's quirky leader Kim Jong Il: he knows how to get the world's attention. Early last week, a powerful new rocket lifted off from a secret base on North Korea's eastern coast and streaked west. Dumping its first stage, it sped high over northern Japan and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. It's not clear yet if it carried any kind of payload. But it packed a political wallop that resounded in capitals from Tokyo to Washington. The message: North Korea may be broke and short of food, but it has a new and potentially dangerous toy.But what exactly is it? Pyongyang claimed it merely launched a satellite that would, among other things, broadcast revolutionary hymns from space. But many experts in the United States, Japan and South Korea believe the rocket was in fact a missile, the Taepo Dong-1. Given North Korea's technological capability known to the outside world, it is doubtful that they could have launched a satellite, says Koh Yoo Hwan, a North Korean expert at Dongkook University in Seoul. With a range of at least 1,500 km, far more than anything else in Pyongyang's arsenal, the Taepo Dong-1 can reach any part of Japan--and the 41,000 U.S. troops stationed there. The new missile also raises the prospect of new threats to the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East, where Pyongyang sells missiles to clients that include Libya and Iran. More worrisome still is what the launch says about Pyongyang's aggressive missile program. Some experts believe North Korea is well on its way to building more-muscular missiles capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii and the western U.S. Washington isn't prepared for the threat, says the chairman of the House National Security Committee's research and development subcommittee, Curt Weldon. It's the first time a rogue state has launched a multi-stage missile, says Weldon. It's extremely worrying.Why would a starving North Korea launch a missile now? Perhaps to impress potential buyers like Iran and Pakistan. Missile sales are Pyongyang's biggest source of foreign exchange; in the late 1980s annual sales totaled up to $700 million a year. In recent years that level has fallen to $50 million or less, as Pyongyang's clients have found other suppliers. With its economy imploding, the country desperately needs to tap new sources of hard currency. What they are doing is demonstrating a new product, says a senior Clinton Administration official.In addition, North Korea's leaders probably calculated the launch would thrill audiences at home, where Kim called the first congressional convention since his father's death. With the country on its knees--famine has killed an estimated 2 million since 1995--showing off a nifty new missile could help boost Kim's standing among his countrymen. The U.S. was also, no doubt, a prime target audience. The launch came just hours before diplomats from both countries were due to sit down in New York to iron out a mini-crisis that erupted last month over the North's nuclear ambitions. U.S. spy satellites revealed a massive excavation at a site northeast of Pyongyang that suggested the North Koreans could be attempting to revive a nuclear weapons project they had agreed to scrap. Analysts say it may well have been a bluff, an attempt to leverage the impoverished regime's only real bargaining chip: its ability to threaten its neighbors. Showing off a new missile would fit nicely with that strategy. This may be a way of poking us and saying 'Pay attention to North Korea. We can still be a pain in the neck,' says Joel Wit, a senior associate at a Washington think tank.North Korea apparently feels the U.S. has not been taking it seriously. Pyongyang agreed to shut down its nuclear facilities in 1994 in exchange for two new reactors that don't produce bomb fuel and a yearly gift of 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil. Washington also agreed to roll back longstanding economic sanctions. But Pyongyang has grown increasing annoyed over what it sees as foot-dragging in Washington. The reactors are behind schedule, as are the fuel-oil deliveries. North Korea is extremely frustrated over how slowly it is getting what it wants from the U.S., says Baek Hak Soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, a private think tank in Seoul. The missile testing is a very calculated message.PAGE 1  |  
The U.S., critics complain, moved on to crises in other parts of the globe, putting the 1994 agreement on autopilot. The White House underestimated how much money it would need from Congress to pay for the oil, which costs about $55 million annually. This year it asked for only $35 million, hoping to raise the rest from its allies. That hasn't worked, since many countries question why the world's leading economic power can't come up with the money itself. But U.S. lawmakers are even more reluctant to bankroll Pyongyang after Monday's launch. The Senate quickly passed legislation requiring President Bill Clinton to certify, before providing more fuel oil, that North Korea is not developing nuclear weapons or exporting ballistic missiles to terrorist nations. If approved by the House, it could kill the 1994 agreement.In Seoul and Tokyo, the reaction was just as swift. South Korean politicians angrily condemned North Korea in parliament. Tokyo said it was suspending food aid and delaying its $1 billion contribution to the cost of the reactors promised to Pyongyang in 1994. Ordinary Japanese were upset at North Korea demonstrating its new firepower in their backyard.Despite the anger, the Taepo Dong-1 will likely refocus the thinking of policy makers on both sides of the Pacific. The missile is years ahead of its predecessor, the Nodong 1, a one-stage rocket with a range of up to 1,000 km. Developing multiple stages is the Holy Grail of rocket science, requiring expertise in guidance systems and other tricky technology. Monday's launch means the North Koreans are a big step closer to building intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to Richard Speier, a former missile-proliferation expert at the Pentagon. Says Speier: They have surmounted a major technological obstacle to developing very long-range missiles.U.S. and Asian experts suspect North Korea is already doing just that, using a Chinese-designed rocket to build an intercontinental version of the Taepo Dong-1. The cia doesn't think Pyongyang could roll out a fleet of the beefy new Taepo Dong-2 missiles before 2010, but it's extremely difficult to gauge how quickly the secretive regime is jumping technological hurdles. A stripped-down version of that missile could have a range of up to 10,000 km, placing at risk western U.S. territory in an arc extending northwest from Phoenix, Arizona, to Madison, Wisconsin, warns a recent report by the Rumsfeld Commission, which assesses potential missile threats to the U.S.And what if the North Koreans did indeed launch a satellite? At week's end, military analysts were investigating that possibility. If true, it would have enormous security implications for Asia--a rogue state with its own sputniks orbiting over their neighborhood. The North Koreans say the satellite is for the peaceful exploration of space. It will also beam tunes back to Earth, including The Song of Marshal General Kim Jong Il. So far, only one Russian station has reported picking up any trace of that staple of North Korea's airwaves. But if Kim has spent millions on a song-singing satellite while his country is starving, he will retain his position as one of the world's most unpredictable leaders.  |  PAGE 2