Yet more disturbing news on the Korean missile front:
North Korea has built an underground fueling facility near a key launch pad, a news report said Thursday, making it harder for spy satellites to detect signs that a missile is being prepared for launch.
The facility was built at the Musudan-ni missile site on North Korea’s northeastern coast either late last year or early this year, the Dong-a Ilbo newspaper reported, citing an unidentified senior South Korean official.
The National Intelligence Service, Seoul’s top spy agency, and the Defense Ministry declined to confirm the report, citing the sensitivity of intelligence matters.
Given Pyongyang’s barely concealed plans to launch a long range ballistic missile, this brings that inevitability closer.
North Korea announced earlier this week that plans to send a communications satellite into orbit as part of its space program were fully under way. It did not say when the launch would take place, but recent satellite imagery showed brisk activity near the launch pad. Neighboring powers and the U.S. believe the satellite launch may be a cover for a test-fire of a long-range ballistic missile.
To put it mildly. Indeed, given the DPRK’s abject poverty and the number of existing communications satellites, one would be hard pressed to come up with a reason they would need to spend massive sums putting up another.
In 1998, North Korea test-fired a long-range Taepodong-1 ballistic missile over Japan and then claimed to have put a satellite into orbit. In 2006, the country also test-launched a longer-range Taepodong-2 missile believed capable of reaching Alaska, but it plunged into the ocean shortly after liftoff. The North is believed to be working on an upgraded Taepodong-2 capable of reaching the U.S. west coast.
The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution in 2006 prohibiting Pyongyang from ballistic activity. South Korea says it would consider either a satellite or missile launch a threat and violation of the U.N. ban since both use similar rocket delivery systems.
Given that resolution, U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates earlier this month said that shooting down any missile launched by the DPRK was a possibility, “should we deem it necessary” although he added, “Since the first time that they launched the missile it flew for a few minutes before crashing, the range of the Taepodong-2 remains to be seen. So far, it’s very short.”
My strong guess is that the West will simply monitor the situation rather than risking war with an unstable nuclear power. I fully endorse the conclusion of recent Stratfor analysis on the matter, though: “North Korea remains able to manipulate the attention of major powers simply by transporting a long tubular object on a train for all the spy satellites to see.”
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.