North Korea is apparently moving ahead with preparations for another test of its Tapeodong-2 long-range missile, which is capable of striking Alaska, Hawaii and other U.S. possessions in the Pacific.
South Korea's semi-official Yonhap news agency reported on Wednesday that Pyongyang has moved additional equipment to the Musudan-ni test site on the Sea of Japan. That account comes barely a week after media outlets in South Korea and Japan reported that North Korea had transported a TD-2 airframe to the same test facility.
The Yonhap story suggests that the DPRK is following the same pattern observed before the 2006 Tapeodong-2 test, which ended in failure after only 100 seconds of flight. Prior to that event, the North Koreans moved the missile to Musudan-ni, placed it on the launch pad and assembled the necessary support equipment to conduct and monitor the test. Pyongyang made little effort to hide its preparations, despite their proficiency at denial and deception techniques.
Almost three years later, North Korea appears equally transparent about its intentions. Kim Jong-il's regime wants the U.S.--and its allies in the region--to know that a TD-2 launch is in the offing. Pyongyang will certainly use the test--or the threat of a test--as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo.
While the launch of a TD-2 would be a serious provocation, the Obama Administration has said little about the matter. During yesterday's press conference at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates played down reports of a possible test, and even joked about the missile's past failure.
"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," Gates told reporters.
"So far, it's very short."
While Gates' observation is certainly accurate, there is a certain danger in dismissing North Korea's capabilities--and its determination to field a crude ICBM. Over the last 20 years, Pyongyang has advanced from short-range FROG-7 and SCUD systems, to medium and intermediate-range systems like the TD-1 and the BM-25.
With a successful launch of the TD-2, the DPRK will raise the ante, demonstrating the ability to strike U.S. facilities across much of the Pacific. And, at some point, North Korea will develop a missile system capable of delivering a nuclear, chemical or biological warhead to the CONUS. While Pyongyang's intercontinental strike capabilities will remain meager (at best), perfection of the TD-2 will change the geopolitical calculus.
How will the Obama team deal with that possibility? At this point, no one really knows. So far, their plan for dealing with Pyongyang seems to be based on a continuation of the "Six Party Talks" (begun by the Bush Administration), and a more deliberate approach toward missile defense.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit the region next week, for meetings with South Korean and Japanese leaders. While the activity at Musudan-ni will certainly come up in those conversations, there has been no indication of how Ms. Clinton will address the matter.
Her visit comes at a critical time for the region. Both Seoul and Tokyo are demanding a tougher approach toward North Korea, a position that puts them (slightly) at odds with the United States. South Korea's new, conservative president has abandoned the "Sunshine Policy" of his predecessors, demanding that North Korea comply with existing agreements as a condition for further talks and additional aid.
Tokyo is also tired of Pyongyang's games, and is still waiting for a full accounting of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents over the past 30 years. Reconciling Japanese and South Korean demands with the U.S. position on North Korea (whatever that might be) will be one of Ms. Clinton's primary tasks during her trip to the Far East.
Meanwhile, there's the matter of how Washington should respond to Pyongyang's test preparations--a key indicator of how the Obama Administration will deal with North Korea. Prior to the 2006 TD-2 test, the U.S. announce plans to intercept the missile, if it threatened our territory. As part of that plan, land-based missile defenses in Alaska and California were placed on alert, and Navy ships with the SM-3 interceptor missile moved into the Sea of Japan.
Unfortunately, there are no indications that Mr. Obama will approve similar measures this time around. And that's rather unfortunate; both Japan and South Korea backed those steps in 2006, viewing them as a measure of America's commitment to the region, and our bi-lateral defense ties to both nations.
It's the kind of reassurance that Washington needs to demonstrate once more, as North Korea readies for another TD-2 test. Failing to provide such assurances will set the tone for future dealings with Tokyo and Seoul, and currently, the silence from Washington is deafening. So, don't be surprised if Hillary Clinton gets an extremely cool reception on her first major trip as Secretary of State.
ADDENDUM: Secretary Gates' dismissive comments about the TD-2 suggest there may be a disagreement between U.S. intelligence services, and their counterparts in Japan and South Korea. So far, no one in the American intelligence community--even those anonymous sources--have verified the "pending test" reports that have appeared in the regional media.
In fairness, we should note that the Japanese and ROK press have sometimes printed claims about North Korea that had no basis in fact. But in this case, the media reports are apparently based on information obtained from U.S.-operated platforms (read: electro-optical imagery satellites), whose output is shared with U.S. allies, typically at the SECRET level.
In other words, movement of the airframe container (and the support equipment) was tracked by overhead platforms, and analyzed by imagery experts in the U.S., Japan and South Korea. Analysts in Tokyo and Seoul have reached the conclusion that North Korea is preparing for a TD-2 test; the assessment of their American counterparts remains unclear. We should note, however, that South Korean and Japanese analysts are comparing current imagery to what they saw in 2006, and it apparently fits the same pattern.
On the other hand, the U.S. doesn't share products from some of its more sophisticated sensors, capable of monitoring DPRK activities in "other" spectral bands, or during periods of bad weather. Does collection from those platforms support the storyline from Tokyo and Seoul? We'll find out in the coming weeks. With an accelerated effort, North Korea could attempt a TD-2 launch toward the end of March, to coincide with the end of its annual Winter Training Cycle. That gives Mr. Obama about five weeks to prepare for that possibility and respond.