As the launch window approaches, North Korea is making additional moves in support of its upcoming satellite launch (read: long-range missile test).
While these latest developments appear unrelated, they actually support the planned test, and will complicate western efforts to monitor the launch and (possibly) respond to it.
We refer to Pyongyang's plans to close two routes within its airspace during next month's launch window, which runs from 4-8 April. Bloomberg has additional details, based on information provided by South Korea's Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs:
The routes to be closed off are part of the R452 route that connects North Korea and Russia and the G346 route between the communist country and Japan, which aren’t used by South Korea’s national carriers or foreign planes flying to South Korea, the South Korean ministry said.
The air routes off North Korea’s east coast will be closed daily between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the period for the launch of a rocket carrying a communications satellite, South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said late yesterday in an e-mailed statement
Announcing the closure areas won't have much impact on commercial traffic (there are only a handful of international flights to and from Pyongyang yeach week), but it does satisfy at least two major goals.
First, by posting the closure notice this far in advance, North Korea is trying to embellish its image as a "responsible" space power, dotting all the "i's" and crossing all the "t's," just like the big boys do. Playing by the rules is supposed to reinforce the notion that next month's event is, indeed, a satellite launch and not just a cleverly-disguised test of a long-range missile.
Closing these areas to commercial air traffic, Pyongyang also simplifies the task of responding to U.S. "provocations," should it decide to. With the closure notice in place, North Korea can be relatively sure that any aircraft near the G346 route are U.S. reconnaissance platforms, including Air Force RC-135 "Rivet Joint" and "Cobra Ball" platforms, or EP-3s operated by the U.S. Navy.
That's useful information for a retaliation scenario. If Washington tries to shoot down the missile, Pyongyang may well respond with a SAM shot (from a long-range SA-5) or fighter intercept of our recce aircraft. And with commercial aircraft out of the area, the North Koreans won't have to worry about collateral damage from targeting a commercial airliner that looks a lot like an RC-135.
On a related note, Pyongyang continues to hold two American journalists, arrested along the border between North Korea and China last week. The two women, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, are employees of Al Gore's struggling video enterprise, Current TV. They were on assignment in the border region last week, reporting on the children of North Koreans who attempt to flee their country, and female refugees who are forced to strip on-line by human traffickers.
South Korean media sources indicate that Ms. Ling and Ms. Lee are being "investigated" by the DPRK's intelligence and security services. That suggests a prolonged (and rather unpleasant) detention, one that will likely continue into the missile launch window. Seoul's semi-official Yonhop news agency predicts that North Korea will attempt to "use" the women as bargaining chips in negotiations with the U.S.
Obviously, the folks at Yonhop have a gift for the obvious. While we can't say that "arrest two Americans" was on Kim Jong-il's pre-launch checklist, he won't let this opportunity go to waste. North Korean officials will certainly remind their U.S. counterparts that Ling and Lee could be subjected to a show trial and years in a labor camp--if we try to shoot down the TD-2. On the other hand, if we "respect" Pyongyang's access to space, the two journalists could be released in a matter of weeks--after the missile launch.
Getting detainees out of North Korea custody is never easy, and this matter is further complicated by the involvement of Al Gore. If Pyongyang had never heard of Current TV before last week, they are now clearly aware of the network--and its principal owner. Borrowing a phrase from Rahm Emanuel's playbook, DPRK leaders won't let this crisis go to waste; they will take a hard line with the U.S., knowing that Gore will press the Obama Administration to do whatever it takes to get his people free.
While the arrest of Ling and Lee doesn't eliminate a possible U.S. military response, it does make that option more difficult. Pyongyang clearly views the two women as something of an insurance policy for the upcoming missile launch, and will extract a high price for their release. There is, of course, a certain irony in that, since North Korea's other, recent move (imposition of the airspace closure areas) could be the first step in creating a free-fire zone over the Sea of Japan, part of its own military response options.
ADDENDUM: While the White House has not announced its position on a potential intercept of the TD-2, at least one BMD-capable ship, the destroyer USS John McCain remains on station in the Sea of Japan. The McCain recently participated in exercises with ROK navy units, but stayed in the area after those drills ended.