Tensions Mounting Over North Korean Launch

For the last several months tensions have been mounting over what the North Koreans have said is a satellite launch and South Korea, Japan, and the United States believe is the test of a long range missile. First, word appeared in the South Korean press that the launch was being prepared. Then the North Koreans declaimed that they would consider any interference with their alleged satellite launch an act of war. Then the Japanese announced that they would bring down an aberrant North Korean missile in their air space. Last week satellite photos confirmed that the vehicle was being assembled on the launch pad. A few days ago the United States deployed two missile interceptor ships off the coast of Japan. Now North Korea has reiterated its intention to wage war against Japan if Japan interferes with the launch:

March 31 (Bloomberg) — North Korea’s government vowed to wage war against Japan if Japanese defense forces try to shoot down a missile that the communist nation says will carry a communications satellite.

“Should Japan dare recklessly to intercept the DPRK’s satellite, its army will consider this as the start of Japan’s war of reinvasion more than six decades after the Second World War,” the official Korean Central News Agency said today in an e-mailed statement. North Korea is also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada ordered his forces on March 27 to shoot down any North Korean object entering his country’s airspace and deployed guided-missile units around Tokyo. Japan, along with the U.S., China, South Korea and Russia want to forestall North Korea’s plans to launch what the government in Pyongyang calls a “peaceful” satellite, and refocus on joint efforts to end its nuclear program.

North Korea accuses Japan of using the missile launch, scheduled to take place between April 4 and 8, as a pretext to build its own nuclear arsenal. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates on March 29 called the launch “a mask” for development of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Whether satellite launch or missile test the event is likely to take place while President Obama is in Europe for the series of events happening there this week including the G-20 summit in London, the solemnities marking NATO’s 60th anniversary, a NATO summit, and so on. If President Obama doesn’t have a policy towards North Korea this would be a very good time to formulate one, as suggested in an editorial in the South Korean Chosun Ilbo:

As if it were catching the Obama administration off its guard, North Korea is seeking to up the ante by staging the so-called satellite launch, which is a ploy, according to Secretary Gates, to develop an inter-continental ballistic missile. With no significant leverage at its disposal, South Korea is simply sitting by with its eyes fixed on Washington.

This helplessness cannot continue indefinitely. Seoul and Washington need to hurry up and produce a set of basic principles and at least a rough blueprint of how they intend to deal with North Korea over next four years. If there is not enough time to do this at the Apr. 2 summit in London, they need to set up another meeting as soon as possible. If they fail to do this, there will be no end to North Korea’s antics.

The picture above from the Associate Press/Digital Globe clearly shows a three stage missile on the Musudan-ni launch pad.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. The last NK missile test blew up on the launch pad. Let’s see how this one turns out before getting too panicky. North Korea seems able to produce a longer-range missile about once every three years. Given their half-assed nuclear test in 2006 — basically, they only got a partial reaction and it produced less than a 1 kt blast (by some estimates it was a 0.2 kt blast)… I think they probably have a long ways to go before they can produce a reliable warhead even if they have a reliable missile (which they don’t seem to yet).

    In the meantime, our mid-course missile defense, though deployed prematurely in a half-assed fashion by the Bush Administration is actually ahead of the curve vis-a-vis the North Korean threat.

    In short… I am not losing sleep over this.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not panicked over it. I don’t think there’s any real threat to us for the foreseeable future. The North Koreans may be able to conduct tests and even launch a test satellite but I doubt they can throw much of a payload as far as Hawaii let alone the continental U. S.

    The Japanese certainly seem to be concerned. As I see things the North Korean and Iranian missile development plans are extremely intimately related. One plan, actually, with two testers. Since the Iranian satellite launch of a few months ago seems to have succeeded, I wouldn’t be surprised if whatever the North Koreans do is successful (from their point of view, of course), too.

  3. DC Loser says:

    Dave – your observation about North Korean and Iranian missiles/rockets are spot on.

  4. As I see things the North Korean and Iranian missile development plans are extremely intimately related. One plan, actually, with two testers.

    Maybe, though I don’t think that publicly available information supports quite as strong a connection as you are suggesting.

    Also, even though media reports called the Iranian missile a “long-range” missile…. it wasn’t. Shahab-3 with a range of 1,200ish miles, which is basically a TD-1… which North Korea has successfully tested several times.

    The issue with NK now is whether they can actually get a TD-2 off the pad… and in particular whether they can get 3rd stage ignition. So, the missile tests might be connected, in some way I guess, but I think that reaches beyond current intelligence estimates. TD-2 is equivalent to rumored Shahab-5/6, which are, as you know, a source of much controversy since the main public info about Shahab-5/6 comes from public statements by Israeli sources.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve also read some speculation that the Iranian launch vehicle was a Shahab-3D, based on a TD-2.

  6. I believe conventional wisdom is that “Shahab-3D” is based on No-Dong A and is being tested independently, though ultimately perhaps being incorporated as a third stage booster. I think that we’ve seen one picture of what might be a Shahab-3D, and there is a ton of debate over whether it is a stand-alone IRBM, a third stage for a TD-2/Shahab-5/6, or planned as a satellite launch vehicle.

    The point though is this… there is a ton of uncertainty about everything except: Neither Iran nor North Korea has yet to test a missile with intercontinental range. The worry with the current test is that North Korea is about to do so.

    Yes, Iran can strike Israel and North Korea can strike Japan… but since Israel is a nuclear state and Japan can take care of itself, I don’t see that circumstance as creating imperatives for U.S. action. If the North Koreans test an ICBM, I will certainly have some thoughts about that, but those are, at this juncture, premature.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    We’re in substantial agreement on this, Bernard. I don’t think this should gives us any special reason for concern either on our own behalf or geopolitically. I have no problem with our staying involved as long as it is, as has been claimed, gathering data only.