The AP headline says it all: "North Korea Appears Close to Long-Range Missile Test." Sometime in the coming days--perhaps in a few hours--Pyongyang will launch a Taepodong-2 missile from a test facility on its eastern coast. The test of the Taepodong-2 (or TD-2, as it's known in the spook world) will create a major international incident, the most serious since the 1998 launch of its predecessor, the TD-1.
During that event, the TD-1 overflew Japan before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean east of Honshu. Tokyo sternly opposed that launch, and indicates it will lodge an even more vigorous protest in response to a TD-2 test shot. Unfortunately, diplomatic notes mean nothing to Kim Jong-il, so the launch will proceed as planned. At last report, one of the missile's stages was reportedly being fueled, suggesting that launch preparations were in the final stages.
However, concerns about the expected TD-2 test extend well beyond Tokyo's diplomatic sensibilities. The upper portion of the three-stage missile may well land outside North Korean borders, coming down (perhaps) on one of Japan's northern islands, or in Russian or Chinese territory. That development would infuriate the Japanese even more, and Moscow or Beijing wouldn't be very happy, either.
From an American perspective, the test launch poses a direct challenge, both militarily and diplomatically. With the six-party talks stalled, Pyongyang will use the event to remind the U.S. (and its partners), that North Korea cannot be ignored. Launch of the TD-2 would likely be followed by a list of demands for Pyongyang, "conditions" for a resumption of talks. Failure to meet those requirements could mean more missile tests, growing regional tensions, and liberal cries for direct talks between the U.S. and North Korea, in hopes of ending the crisis. Fortunately, President Bush pays as much attention to advice from The New York Times editorial page as Kim Jong-il does to Japanese diplomatic notes.
But the prospective TD-2 test creates some real dilemmas for the Bush Administration. If the missile is a three-stage version--and it's not used for a space launch, as some have speculated--the TD-2's RV vehicle could splash down in the vicinity of Hawaii, a daring provocation from Pyongyang. Not even at the height of the Cold War did the U.S. or the Soviet Union arrange for their simulated RVs to land within a few hundred miles of their adversary's shoreline. Parking an RV near Hawaii would remind the U.S. that Pyongyang is now capable of targeting American territory, with weapons of mass destruction.
And that creates another challenge for the White House. The U.S. now has a limited number of anti-missile interceptors on alert in Alaska, deployed specifically for the North Korean threat. Would the United States use those weapons to send its own message to Pyongyang, by knocking down the TD-2? That scenario alone carries significant risks; shooting down the missile could be interpreted as an act of war; a "miss" would be a devastating setback for U.S. BMD efforts. There is also the possibility that NK might retaliate by attempting to intercept (and shoot down) a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan.
What will happen in the hours that follow? Almost anything, and virtually all scenarios are problematic for the U.S. In any event, keep an eye on the east, and brace for the diplomatic and military crisis that is almost certain to follow.