Friday, March 13, 2009

Just Another, Responsible Space-Faring Nation

...Or at least, that's the image that North Korea is trying to project. In advance of the planned "satellite launch" (now officially scheduled for a five-day window in early April), Pyongyang is dutifully informing various international agencies of its intentions. From Bloomberg:

North Korea has informed the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) of the launch, the official Korea Central News Agency said. The U.S. and South Korea say there are signs North Korea is planning to test a Taepodong-2 missile that is technically capable of reaching Alaska.

The communist regime is trying to minimize tensions by giving advanced warning, said Choi Jong Kun, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul. North Korea gave no official notification when it tested a Taepodong-1 missile in 1998, which flew across Japan before landing in the Pacific Ocean.

“North Korea doesn’t want a confrontational relationship with the U.S., so it’s taking proper steps this time,” Choi said.

Based on information supplied by Pyongyang, ICAO officials have issued their own warning to aviators. McKittrick, the missile defense expert who blogs at Closing Velocity, notes the projected flight path creates two danger areas: one in the Sea of Japan, where the first stage booster is supposed to splash down; the other is located east of Japan.

In his latest blog post on the DPRK test, McKittrick also supplies a helpful graphic, showing the missile's planned trajectory. Not only will the Tapeodong-2 overfly Japan, the projected flight axis will carry the missile towards Hawaii, though it is expected to fall short of that location.

Talk about sending a signal. If all goes as planned, North Korea will demonstrate its ability to target Japan and U.S. possessions in the Pacific region. Intelligence analysts believe the TD-2 has sufficient range to reach Alaska and Hawaii (in its present configuration). Pyongyang has also tested a more powerful engine for the missile, potentially putting our west coast cities within reach.

But not to worry; remember, this is nothing more than a satellite launch, and North Korea is doing what any other, aspiring space power would do. We concur with McKittrick's assessment; the "satellite" scenario is probably nothing more than a ruse, aimed at preventing an intercept attempt by the U.S. or Japan.

As we've observed in previous posts, the DPRK used a similar cover story in 1998, when they launched a TD-2 over Japan. That test was also supposed to send a satellite into orbit, but there was one slight problem: the satellite was never detected.

Meanwhile, North Korea can test advanced missile technology, with little threat of outside interference. In fact, prospects of a U.S. shootdown appear virtually nil. A couple of days ago, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), retired Admiral Dennis Blair, said he believes the North Korean launch will be a satellite launch. Other members of the Obama Administration have stated that the U.S will not disrupt a satellite deployment.

Officially, the White House hasn't announced a response plan for the TD-2 launch, and there seems to be some confusion between civilian officials and their military counterparts. Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, reminded reporters that we could shoot the missile down, if Mr. Obama gave the order (emphasis ours). For his trouble, Keating incurred the wrath of White House officials, who suggested that the admiral's comments might "derail" efforts to engage Pyongyang.

It it's any consolation to Admiral Keating, the Japanese are a bit confused as well. In fact, Tokyo warned today that it may shoot down the missile, if it threatens Japanese territory.

Let's assume, for a moment, that Japan makes good on its promise; it would represent an extraordinary move for a country that officially renounces war in its constitution. Tokyo's unilateral announcement suggests two possible scenarios; (A) The U.S. has failed to coordinate an effective, regional response plan for the TD-2, or (B) Washington is prepared to let the launch occur, with little regard for wider security implications.

Kim Jong-il must be absolutely thrilled. In less than a month, he'll get a chance to showcase North Korea's first ICBM, and drive a wedge between the U.S. and its most important Asian ally. Meanwhile, the Obama team keeps plotting new overtures toward Pyongyang. Good luck with that.

4 comments:

George said...

Why isn't there an outcry from concerned caring liberals about a country that presses forward with complex missile technology while their people starve?

SwampWoman said...

Because "caring liberals" is an oxymoron.

J.R. said...

George, I don't know anybody -- left or right -- who's not outraged by Kim's treatment of his people.

As for "sending a signal", the eastward trajectory sends a signal that North Korea understands how to take advantage of the earth's rotation... nothing more. Hawaii happens to be just north of their optimal flight path for a satellite insertion. To a politician it's pretty close; to a rocket scientist it's a miss by a wide margin. If anything, the size of the closure area sends a pretty clear signal that it will be a spent stage - and not a test payload - splashing down in the second closure area. If that's the case, it lends more credibility to the idea that they will attempt to get something in orbit.

McKittrick is careful not to conflate the test of a more powerful engine with the TD-2, because he doesn't know (or can't say) that the two are actually associated; you should be careful to use the same precision of language. Both you and McKittrick tiptoe around insinuating that the satellite launch in 1998 was an outright lie but you only present absence of evidence, not evidence of absence. A quick tour of McKittrick's comments section and previous posts is enough to verify that he's a (heavily biased) insider, but I wouldn't call him an "expert" by any stretch... not as long as he shows Pearl Harbor on the flight path for this launch.

davod said...

"George, I don't know anybody -- left or right -- who's not outraged by Kim's treatment of his people."

I do not hear of or see many protesting in the streets about this.