Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Waiting on Washington's Response

Sometime in the coming days, North Korea will launch a Tapeodong-2 long-range ballistic missile from its test complex on the Sea of Japan. Officially, Pyongyang says the rocket is being used to put a communications satellite into orbit.

But no one really accepts that explanation. North Korea's space capabilities are primitive; any communications platform launched by the missile will do little more than beam martial music or the collected speeches of Kim Jong-il from earth orbit. The real purpose behind the test is to improve the reliability of the TD-2, the only DPRK missile capable of hitting U.S. targets throughout the Pacific.

At this point, the launch is not a matter of "if" but "when." According to the The New York Times, Pyongyang has acknowledged on-going preparations at the Musudan-ri test site. North Korean officials did not say when the launch will occur, but it's the clearest indication yet that a test is in the offing.

The DPRK claims that an Unha-2 booster, being prepared at the Musudan-ri, will lift a "Kwangmyongsong-2" communications satellite into orbit. North Korea staged a similar event in 1998, but western space and intelligence agencies never detected the Kwangmyongsong-1, which was supposedly launched on another TD-2.

As the Times notes, a long-range ballistic missile with a warhead flies a profile that is very similar to that of a rocket delivering a satellite. Analysts (typically) distinguish the two events through the detection of a new satellite on orbit. The failure to detect the Kwangmyongsong-1 eleven years ago suggests that the satellite claims were nothing more than a ruse.

While the NYT--and other American media outlets--have diligently reported the test preparations, they have avoided the matter of how the U.S. will respond. During her Asian trip last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged North Korea to cancel the launch, saying it would be "very unhelpful" and "provocative."

Needless to say, Mrs. Clinton's warnings did not achieve the desired effect. The TD-2 is still on track for liftoff, possibly by week's end. That raises the next question; having failed to deter Pyongyang with diplomatic rhetoric, how does the Obama Administration plan to deal with the imminent launch?

Facing a similar test in 2006, the Bush Administration put land and sea-based missile interceptors on alert, and announced plans to shoot down the TD-2, if it threatened U.S. territory or allies in the Pacific. That plan became moot when the North Korean missile broke apart, roughly 100 seconds into its flight.

This time around, there has been no talk of a possible military response. In a recent blog entry, Aviation Week's Michael Bruno suggests that mid-course interceptors, based in Alaska and California, are "probably" on alert. But he also cautions there has been no official word from defense officials--or the White House.

In preparation for the launch three years ago, our interceptor missiles were placed on an extended, 40-day alert. Officials with the Missile Defense Agency and the system's primary contractor (Boeing) said the drill was beneficial, allowing them to "shake down" the system and fix bugs that might have gone undetected.

While our missile defenses have clearly improved since 2006, there's no indication that the Obama Administration is prepared to use them. Faced with another serious challenge from Pyongyang, the White House seems prepared to let Kim Jong-il test his missile, regardless of where it might land.

In fairness, there may be other reasons for the White House's vague response. Perhaps Mr. Obama doesn't want to tip his military hand, or--given the president's preference for diplomacy -- there may be secret talks underway, aimed at preventing the test.

But don't bet on it. Beyond Hillary Clinton's fuzzy warnings last week, the administration seems genuinely puzzled about how to deal with Pyongyang. That is music to the "Dear Leader's" ears and it's one more reason that TD-2 is sitting on the launch pad.

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