When North Korea recently tested three short-range missiles, the event was described as "routine" by both the Pentagon and the State Department.
Now, we're learning that the test wasn't so ordinary after all. The Defense Department's senior policy official for Asian affairs--who is preparing to leave that post--has revealed that the three missiles were actually SS-21s, a much more accurate system that the FROG-7s and SCUDS that form the backbone of North Korea's ballistic missile force. The departing official, Richard Lawless, made the comments at his final news conference on Friday.
Pyongyang gained access to the SS-21 through Syria, which acquired the missiles from Russia in the early 1980s. North Korean engineers modified the original Soviet-era design, almost doubling their range, from 70km, to an estimated 100-120km. The upgraded missile (dubbed the KN-02 by Pyongyang) was successfully tested in 2005, almost a decade after North Korea first obtained the SS-21.
That extended "gap" between acquisition and the first test is not unusual; the DPRK often takes a deliberate approach in the development of new weapons, given scarce resources, and funding requirements for other, higher-priority efforts, including the Tapeo Dong-2 long range missile, and North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
But the snail's pace of KN-02 development doesn't explain why the recent test was dismissed as routine. The event was (apparently) the most successful in the history of the program, and the three-missile salvo represents Pyongyang's largest missile test since last July. By almost any definition, this was hardly a normal event. In fact, it suggests that the KN-02 is moving toward full-scale deployment, replacing the aging FROG-7.
That's significant, because the SS-21/KN-02 was designed to carry nuclear and chemical warheads, and its accuracy--160 meters--is far better than SCUD variants (which have an average CEP of 2,000 meters) and the ancient FROG-7, which is actually an unguided rocket. In fact, it's name is an acronym: Free Rocket Over Ground.
So why categorize an atypical event as commonplace? The answer can be found in Washington's on-going efforts to entice North Korean compliance with the latest nuclear deal. Those KN-02s were launched not long after Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill visited Pyongyang. And, with Pyongyang inching closer towards shutting down a key nuclear facility, the Bush Administration didn't want to rock the boat, at least not initially. More recently, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has expressed "concern" over the missile test, but that's the mildest of rebukes, in diplomat-speak.
Such a minor protest must be music to the ears of Kim Jong-il. It doesn't take a member of the striped-pants set (or an intel analyst) to determine that the missile test was a carefully calibrated event. The tepid U.S. response tells Pyongyang that the U.S. is determined to make the nuclear agreement work, even willing to tolerate North Korean mischief in other areas. That seems to be the main reason we downplayed the significance of the KN-02 test.
The willingness of Mr. Lawless to discuss the event in frank terms also suggests a policy rift between the Pentagon and State Department. That also plays into Pyongyang's hands, especially with the Defense Department now assuming a lesser role in key foreign policy discussions. Without a stronger--and more unified--approach to North Korea's missile program, we will likely see more tests, and attempts by the DPRK to market the KN-02, in the Middle East and elsewhere.