Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Just a Matter of Time

The pending launch of that North Korean TD-2 has ignited a related--and equally important debate--assuming that the missile test is successful, how long will it be until Pyongyang can put a nuclear warhead on that long-range delivery system.

While that development will almost assuredly happen, U.S. officials have downplayed the possibility, at least for now. During an interview with Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that "no senior government officials" currently believe that North Korea has a warhead small enough to fit on its medium or long-range missiles.

But there's little dobut that Kim Jong-il's scientists are making progress. At least one expert claims that North Korea has expanded its storage facilities for nuclear weapons, to accomodate a growing inventory. As he told the AP:

Daniel Pinkston — a Seoul-based expert for the International Crisis Group think tank, which provides detailed analysis about North Korea — said the communist nation has two underground nuclear warhead storage facilities near bases for its medium-range Rodong missiles, which are capable of striking Japan. The North is believed to have five to eight warheads, he said.

But he stressed it is unclear if the communist nation has mastered the technology necessary to miniaturize the warheads and put them on Rodong missiles, which have a range of 620 to 930 miles.

The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, said it could not confirm Pinkston’s claims.

Despite a lack of definitive corroboration, Mr. Pinkston's claims are certainly realistic. While some analysts believe North Korea had a crude nuclear device in the mid-1990s, their program advanced after Pyongyang entered into the "Agreed To" framework with the United States. The accord "officially" halted the DPRK's nuclear work, but the program simply shifted underground, resulting in a partially successful nuclear explosion in 2006, and an expanding nuclear arsenal.

North Korea will also solve the delivery system issue and sooner, rather than later. A successful test of the TD-2 will create an even greater demand for missile technology among Pyongyang's client states. Countries like Iran will contribute even more to programs that will ultimately benefit them, including warhead research. Did we mention that an Iranian team is reportedly in the DPRK to view the upcoming missile test, according to a Japanese press report.

Coincidence? You decide.

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