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North Korea's next move: long-range missile tests?

Satellite photos show activity at a testing site, say US officials. A successful launch would signal progress toward a nuclear weapons arsenal.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2009



Washington

Following its underground nuclear test earlier this week, North Korea may be planning another show of defiance to the world: the test of a long-range ballistic missile.

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US satellite photos have showed increased vehicle activity at a North Korean site previously used for intercontinental ballistic missile testing, according to US officials in Washington, speaking May 29 on the condition of anonymity.

Pyongyang already has followed up the nuclear test with a spasm of short-range missile launches into the sea surrounding the Korean peninsula.

"They clearly have decided that now that they have provoked the outside world anyway, they might as well do everything they had been holding up until now," says Chaibong Hahm, a senior political scientist and expert on the North Korean regime at RAND Corp., in Santa Monica, Calif.

The short-range missile launches – six so far this week – count more as a political expression of displeasure. But a test of a long-range missile would be something more serious, as North Korea is still struggling to perfect the technology for such a weapon.

An April 5 launch of a Taepodong-2 long-range missile that North Korea said was intended to place a satellite in orbit was a failure. While the first stage worked properly, and separated from the rest of the rocket once its fuel was expended, the second and third stages never separated.

Only last year, North Korea appeared to be seriously pondering the possibility of normalizing its relationship with the US and South Korea, says Mr. Hahm. Negotiations over its nuclear program appeared to be making progress.

That's off now.

"That's not their short-term goal anymore," says Hahm. "In the meantime, they've decided to go all out for trying to shore up their regime, and retrench for a possible [leadership] succession issue."

The activity spotted by US satellites at Musudan-ri, the missile test site in North Korea's northeastern corner, may not actually lead to a test. Such overhead intelligence is often indicative, rather than conclusive.

But North Korea needs to perfect missile technology as well nuclear technology if it wishes to have an atomic weapons arsenal.

It is no trivial problem to make a nuclear weapon small enough so that it fits on a missile, attaching the warhead properly and shielding it so it can survive reentry, even on a medium-range rocket, noted Michael O'Hanlon, a Brookings Institution senior fellow in foreign policy, at a May 27 seminar.

"The North Koreans, in my judgment, probably cannot now be confident that they have that capability," said Mr. O'Hanlon.

Associated Press material was used in this article.

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