JPRI Critique Vol. VI No. 11 (November 1999)
It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's Superdong; or, What the North Koreans Have Wrought?
by Patrick Lloyd Hatcher

North Korea's homemade missile, the Taepodong, catapulted a begging-bowl economy into the ranks of what the CIA calls "major threats" to the United States and Japan. This stratospheric leap in status occurred on August 31, 1998, when the communist government in Pyongyang tested a three-stage Taepodong, which blasted off toward northern Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean. Actually, it fell in three places: stage one into the Sea of Japan, stage two into the Pacific, and stage three, as nervous nellies in the U.S. never tire of pointing out, came down as debris in waters off Alaska, 6,000 km from the launch site in North Korea.

The Taepodong is the Scarlet Pimpernel of missiles. It wobbles here, it wobbles there, it wobbles everywhere. Peter Hayes, co-director of Berkeley's nonprofit Nautilus Institute and a Korea specialist, suggests that the possibility of a successful lift-off ranges from 5 to 10 percent, and potential accuracy from 1 to 10 percent. Production runs are one at a time with parts that may, or may not, fit.

Kim Tae-woo, Director of Policy Research for South Korea's opposition conservative party, compared the psychological impact of the August 1998 test to the Soviet Sputnik of 1957. Just as presidential candidate Kennedy charged President Eisenhower with a missile gap favoring the Soviets, Kim charges that a missile gap now exists between South and North Korea favoring the latter. His bottom line: South Korea should develop attack missiles in the 800 km range that could be fired from the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, thus bringing all northern military targets within range. In so doing, America's shackles on Seoul's rocket development would have to come off. According to Kim, an informal, but never published, South Korean-U.S. Missile Note of 1979 limits the South to missiles of a 180 km range. With new rockets would also come spy satellites; Seoul would never again depend so heavily on U.S. intelligence sources, which recently have shown their gaping failures to Asian allies.

Reviving SDI

The intelligence gap has Japanese strategists thinking the worst. Tokyo finds it hard to believe that the Americans could have been blindsided twice in 1998: first, in May, with the failure to "see" India's preparations for its nuclear test, and then, in early August, with the U.S. intelligence assessment that any North Korean test would be of its old two-stage Taepodong-1 missile (2,000 km range). Japanese strategists now want their own spy satellites. To make that a reality, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka announced that the government had included funding for the project in the supplementary budget for the fiscal year ending in March 2000. The current U.S. administration, while urging Tokyo to spend more on defense, would much prefer that Japan buy its spy satellites from Americans.

What the U.S. has most wanted to sell to Japan seemed dead in the water until the Taepodong made its fateful journey. The high-tech dream of Pentagon planners has a wild-west ring to it: to shoot a bullet with a bullet. Ronald Reagan brought that dream from Warner Brothers to the White House, enthusiastically supported by the munitions industry. After 1991, however, his Strategic Defense Initiative lost its rationale in the Soviet threat. Secretary of Defense William Cohen now wants to revive it on a somewhat smaller scale and call it a theater missile defense. What the Pentagon seems to have forgotten in its script is the technical problem: you still have to hit incoming projectiles with outgoing precision.

When the Taepodong fell from the sky Japan suddenly embraced the TMD system and, on September 20, 1998, agreed to conduct joint research on developing it with the U.S. The money poured in, but the missiles kept missing. Going back to the Reagan administration's ambitious space-based "Star Wars" system, the Pentagon has spent $50 billion on research and testing of a missile defense, with few results. On a limited scale, the U.S. Army has tested a missile shield for troops in the field. Named the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense system or THAAD, and so far costing $15.4 billion, it set a record for missing its targets: six tests, six misses. Then, on the next two "hit to kill" flight tests--in June and August 1999--the incoming Hera target missiles came into range flying a shorter path and thus were much easier for the missile defense system to locate. (The White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico served as the theater being defended.) Even the Pentagon's Director of Operational Testing & Evaluation, Philip Coyle III, admitted that flight tests 7 and 8 were "shaped and scripted." To avoid public relations as well as missile misses, softballs are now the name of the game. On October 2, 1999, for example, the Raytheon-built Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle did intercept a Minuteman missile fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base toward the Marshall Islands, but knowing when it was coming and from where certainly helped it pull off this collision at 16,000 miles per hour, 140 miles over an ocean.

While Army leaders worry about awarding a final-phase contract to the Lockheed Martin Corporation, their Commander-in-Chief has once again raided the Republican agenda. Bill Clinton, past arms controller, is now a space cadet in the making. Although Clinton, barely 100 days into his first administration, killed the stripped-down "Star Wars" system, he now affirms a report from an independent panel headed by Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Secretary under Gerald Ford, that underscores the danger that within five years intercontinental ballistic missiles launched by North Korea, or a few other "rogue" nations, might be able to reach U.S. territory. Again we can thank the wobbly Taepodong for this even wobblier logic.

Even though the Japanese have signed on, Seoul wisely opted not to join this "Star Wars" sequel. South Korean Defense Minister Chun Yong-taek has even warned Tokyo against launching a preemptive strike against Pyongyang. On the other hand, Taipei is threatening to build its own missile defense. Both Beijing and Moscow bitterly accuse Washington of destabilizing the Western Pacific, with the Russians reminding the Americans that arms controls rest on the venerable 1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which the U.S. now seems ready to abandon (Cohen has suggested the U.S. might "junk" it). Alexei Arbatov, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Duma's Defense Committee, reportedly blames his American friends, not his communist enemies, for killing any chance that the 1993 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II will win the Duma's long-delayed approval. START II was to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both sides down to 3,500 weapons. And now the U.S. Senate has killed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. American and Japanese overreaction to the Taepodong is undercutting the work of decades, leading perhaps to a global unraveling. Is America preparing for the next millennium or Armageddon?

The North Korean Ploy

How did the North Koreans manage to so spook the United States? It started with nuclear weapons. Pyongyang admits, with pride, that it has a nuclear research center at Yongbyon. When the Soviet Union went down for the count in 1991, American globalists, relieved of their long Moscow obsession, began to obsess about Pyongyang. Why do they need nuclear power? Do they have a plutonium production facility? A reprocessing plant? Hard questions given that Korea's Stalinists have taken to working underground. Bombed nearly back to the stone age in the Korean War, they are taking no chances that American bombs won't fall again.

Washington worked itself into a frenzy that took it to the brink of a preemptive strike. In the nick of time, Pyongyang relented and invited the U.S. in for a look. The nuclear work at Yongbyon was found, as advertised, but weapons work was not. Had the North Koreans moved it, Iraqi style? Hoping not, in 1994 Washington offered, and Pyongyang accepted, a deal in which a U.S. technical team would put North Korea's eight thousand spent nuclear fuel rods in long-term, safe-storage. Starting in 1995, it took the team two and a half years to do so. The U.S. also agreed to organize the construction of two light-water reactors--a type considered less dangerous than Pyongyang's heavy-water reactor--plus imports of fuel oil.

The 1990s owe much to a senior American diplomat C. Kenneth Quinones, who between 1992 and 1994 was the North Korea desk officer at the State Department. He discussed North Korean nuclear intentions with its Foreign Minister, Kim Young-nam, and later with President Kim Il-sung. In 1992, Quinones was the first U.S. diplomat to visit Pyongyang since the Korean War. He negotiated working conditions for the Spent Fuel Team, was a member of the first U.S. delegation to visit Yongbyon's nuclear research center, where he spent much of 1995 and 1996, and lived in Pyongyang in the summers of 1996 and 1997. He flew low over North Korea in helicopters and drove unescorted over much of the area. Quinones questions American paranoia. This is not to say that he thinks the Pyongyang regime is nice, or that it would not like to have a few nukes. But nukes to negotiate with, not to nuke with. The American strategic doctrine of deterrence seems to be better understood in Pyongyang than it is on the banks of the Potomac.

By early 1999, Americans had a new worry. Spy satellites confirmed that thousands of workers had excavated a mountain 25 miles northwest of Yongbyon called Kumchang-ri. American defense hawks believed Pyongyang was developing nukes there in violation of the 1994 accord. Was this blackmail of the haves by a have-not? Or was this a have-not having it both ways? The Clinton administration reprised its big bad wolf role, and by March 1999 Pyongyang's leaders relented by agreeing to allow U.S. inspectors into Kumchang-ri. Once again, the North Koreans were not doing what they said they were not doing. This time the quid pro quo for a peek into an off-limits facility involved potatoes. Pyongyang wanted help in increasing its potato yields, a modest request from a regime that has seen food shortages and famine-related illnesses kill up to 2 million of its 23 million people in the past three years. According to U.S. congressional sources, two-thirds of all North Korean children are malnourished, and lack of food has stunted millions more.

Determined to halt further Taepodong testing, the U.S. sent Charles Kartman, the State Department's chief negotiator with North Korea, to hold talks in Berlin with his Korean opposites. Clinton also appointed former Defense Secretary William Perry as his special envoy to North Korea. On September 13, 1999, Kartman announced an agreement by which Pyongyang will suspend long-range missile testing while both "countries endeavor to preserve a positive atmosphere conducive to improved bilateral relations and to peace and security." Perry presented a report to Clinton in which he suggested a finely tuned series of moves to lift sanctions if North Korea continues to freeze missile testing and ends its sales of the technology to other nations.

On September 17, 1999, the Executive Branch made the first positive gesture recommended by Perry; it lifted key parts of a nearly half-century-old trade embargo against North Korea. Jesse Helms, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declared it a swindle; and Senator Mitch McConnell, Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, sent out an incendiary GOP fund-raising letter asking for financial help so that Senators could defend the nation, since the president wouldn't or couldn't.

What a mess. What to do? First, scale back any Theater Missile Defense to a research project with no fixed deadlines. We have a sound missile defense doctrine called deterrence. Even so-called rogue states have an immovable homeland that is vulnerable to retalliation. Hence deterrence works. It is terrorists who have freed themselves from geography and thus present a problem. When the next enemies come, as they will, they will not have to lob high-altitude missiles. They will likely carry nuclear bombs or biological agents in suitcases or in the holds of freighters, or they will launch old Scud-like missiles from commercial ships offshore, the missile neatly passing underneath any shield. This, not the Taepodong, is the threat of the future.

PATRICK LLOYD HATCHER is a retired U.S. Army colonel and the author of Suicide of an Elite: American Internationalists and Vietnam (1988) and North Atlantic Civilization at War (1998).

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