As long anticipated, North Korea test fired a Taepodong rocket hours ago, which President Obama termed “a threat to the northeast Asian region and to international peace and security.” Is that really so? Don Snow published the following analysis yesterday afternoon, viewing the test prospectively.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) is scheduled to test fire a Taepodong rocket within the next few days. Diplomatic efforts may or may not prevent this from happening–the record of dealing with Kim Jung Il and his regime is a decidedly mixed bag.
The North Koreans, of course, say this is no big deal. The DPRK is, after all a sovereign state, and as such, has every right to test a rocket. And, in their telling, the rocket launch is not a military event, but instead an effort to put a satellite into orbit. The fact that the technology for satellite or military launch is very close to the same should not be troubling, according to Pyongyang.
And yet the world, and specifically the United States, evinces a good deal of concern over this event. The reason, of course, is that a successful rocket launch would demonstrate the potential that the DPRK might wed its existing nuclear weapons knowledge with a rocket capable of launching a warhead to the continental United States. That, of course, would be a problem, particularly given the instability of the North Korean regime and the state of US-DPRK relations, which is never good and occasionally (like the last eight years) very bad.
Just how worried should we be about all this? Does this rocket launch pose a real threat to the United States, or is the whole thing being hyped out of proportion? I would suggest that the extent of problem depends on what the North Koreans can and cannot do or will be able to do if the launch is successful.
For there to be any real American problem, the North Koreans must demonstrate two capabilities, one of which will be at least partly answered by the rocket test. The first is the ability to launch a reliable rocket that can achieve intercontinental range. They have had some successful launches and some notable failures, and they have yet to demonstrate the ability to fire a three-stage rocket, which is what they need to get a warhead here. One successful test is a start for them, but just a start. The other capability is the fabrication of a nuclear warhead that is small and light enough to fit on (and thus be transported by) a missile to target. Primitive nuclear weapons are too big and heavy to put on the tips of missiles. Does the DPRK have the scientific and engineering expertise to fabricate an appropriate warhead for missile transport? Can they? I don’t know, and since the information is classified by the US government, if I told you, I would have to kill you. It is not, however, simply a given that they can do either of these things,. If they can’t do both, the problem is hypothetical, not real.
Even if the North Koreans can pass the first two tests, that does NOT mean they automatically pose a threat against the United States. To pose such a threat, they would have to possess rockets that could be fired clandestinely and on essentially no warning–what are called “first strike” weapons capable of being fired in a rapid manner that the United States could not detect until the launch occurs. They are several eons from such a capability.
To launch a preemptive attack, a country’s missile attack force must have two capabilities. First, it must use solid fuel as a propellent. Taepodong rockets are liquid fuel. This is important, because solid fuel propellents can be stored on the rocket for long periods and can be activated instantly. Liquid rocket fuels are too volatile for storage on the missile, and this means a missile must be “filled up” with fuelbefore launch. This takes time and is normally visible to a potential opponent. If one sees rockets being fueled, that is a clue and gives time to knock the rocket out before launch–no first strike. Second, the missile must be stored in a ready launch position that is protected from preemptive attack. Again, the North Koreans fail. The DPRK must drag their missiles out of storage facilities and erect them in an upright position. We have been watching this process for days on cable television. While the process of erection is occurring (and it must be completed before fueling is possible) there is lots of time to take out the missile before it can possibly be fired at you.
What this means is that the kind of rocket the North Koreans are preparing to fire poses no direct threat to the United States. Moving from primitive liquid propelled, above-ground launched missiles to weapons that could actually be used to threaten to attack or to launch an attack against the American homeland is a very long step, and one well beyond the North Koreans at this time or in the foreseeable future. To suggest anything more ominous about the test than that it is a very small step toward a North Korean threat is hysterical, and it is heartening that the Obama administration has not issued more than guarded statements about it (the Bush administration would have had us digging up our back yards and building bomb shelters!).
Is the North Korean test of a rocket potentially capable of intercontinental range a good thing? Of course not. Is it the apocalypse? It may be the first step toward a big deal, but in and of itself, it should give us cause for mild concern, and not much more.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq blog.