Indications and Warning
From today's Financial Times comes word that North Korea may be planning a test-launch of its Tapeo Dong 2 (TD-2) missile from a test site along its northeastern coast. A test launch of the missile's medium-range predecessor (designated the TD-1) created an international incident in 1998, when the missile overflew Japan. The TD-2 has a longer range than the TD-1, with the ability to hit some locations in the CONUS (with a scaled down payload).
My contacts in the intel community have essentially confirmed the FT story. At this point, preparations appear to be well underway, and a launch could occur in a matter of days. Some analysts have speculated that NK may be using the preparations to gain attention from the U.S. and South Korea. With no substantial progress in the six-party nuclear talks, Kim Jong-il may attempt to restart the process--on his terms--by reminding the other parties that he has nuclear weapons, and with the TD-2, a mechanism for striking targets well beyond the peninsula.
There is the possibility that NK may abandon the expected launch at the last moment, particularly if Washington and Seoul respond favorably. But, as defense sources told FT, it will be difficult to discontinue the test once fueling of the missile has begun. Pyongyang has claimed that it plans to use the multi-stage TD-2 as a space launch vehicle. However, such claims are laughable, given NK's lack of prior experience in that arena, and the ready availability of other, proven launch platforms.
One final (albeit remote) possibility is that the potential TD-2 launch is a giant ruse, designed to lure U.S. collection platforms to the area, and (possibly) attempt a forced landing in North Korean territory. In March 2003, the North Korean Air Force (NKAF) executed a surprise intercept of a U.S. RC-135 Cobra Ball reconnaissance aircraft, used to monitor missile tests. The Cobra Ball crew had no idea that NKAF MiGs were in the area until the enemy fighters began flying alongside the American aircraft. North Korea reportedly used several denial-and-deception techniques to mask the intercept, and Pyongyang remains a skilled practitioner of D&D. The 2003 intercept came during a period of missile testing by the north, spurring speculation that a similar operation may again be in the offing.
Hat tip: EagleSpeak.