North Korea preps for rocket launch despite international warnings
Many are concerned that North Korea's rocket launch is cover for developing the technology to attach a nuclear warhead to a long-range missile capable of going as far as Hawaii, Alaska, or the US West Coast.
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The North Korean plan has rekindled memories of the launch of the first Taepodong on Aug. 31, 1998, when the rocket was fired over the main Japanese island of Honshu before landing in the western Pacific.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Inside North Korea: more circus than bread
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Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda promptly cancelled plans for long-delayed talks with North Korea that were scheduled for this week, while Japan’s anti-missile system was put on alert with orders to shoot down the North Korean rocket if it flew anywhere over Japan.
Before leaving Seoul for Washington, South Korean envoy Mr. Lim told the South Korean news agency Yonhap that the purpose of the talks was “to block North Korea's launch of a long-range missile,” but analysts believe that is an impossible dream.
Victor Cha, director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council during the presidency of George W. Bush, cites factors ranging from the anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death to the desire to bring pressure on the US to recognize North Korea.
Yet another factor, he believes, may be “wanting to influence” South Korea’s presidential election on Dec. 19 in which the conservative Park Geun-hye, daughter of the dictatorial Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979, faces the liberal Moon Jae-in. Both Ms. Park and Mr. Moon are sure to want to attempt some form of reconciliation with the North – though Park’s policies would probably be less conciliatory. North Korean strategists may believe Park would be more inclined to compromise if intimidated by a demonstration of the North's success in manufacturing rockets and missiles, including short and mid-range models for firing into South Korea or Japan.
Although Kim Jong-un has replaced a number of top generals, says Mr. Cha, “the external behavior is the same” as during the rule of his father. North Korea has successfully fired two long-range rockets, Taepodong I and Taepodong II, in 1998 and again in 2009. In every case, North Korea insists the purpose is to put a satellite into orbit, but no satellite was detected in any of the previous launches.
North Korea, in announcing plans to launch the rocket this month, claimed to have fixed the flaws that led to the failure of the attempt in April.
“Each of the failures of past launches has been associated with moving from one stage to another,” says Bruce Bechtol, who has written extensively on North Korea’s military buildup. “Acquiring thrust technology may be a factor that increases the chances of a successful three-stage launch.”
Eyeing sales abroad?
Mr. Bechtol also sees a strong profit motive. “This missile – if successfully tested – is likely to be almost immediately proliferated to Iran,” he says. “Sales would likely result in profits in the hundreds of millions of dollars for Pyongyang."
“If you have a missile program,” says David Straub, a former senior US diplomat in South Korea, “you have to test and test again.” Since the last attempt failed in April, he says, “another test was warranted,” and “conducting it around Kim Jong-il’s death probably makes sense in terms of the regime's internal dynamics.”