The United States, Japan, and other countries worry about North Korea mainly for two reasons: its suspicious nuclear-energy program and its capacity to develop ballistic missiles.
But in the last several months, there have been worrying signs that the country may be trying to break out of a 1994 agreement to freeze its nuclear activities. And yesterday, in an alarming new development, North Korea fired a two-stage rocket over Japanese territory and into the Pacific, demonstrating that its missile program remains very active.
North Korea has conducted missile tests before, but yesterday's launch marks the debut of a more powerful missile with a potential reach that extends as far as Alaska and the Hawaii.
The country is struggling with a widespread food shortage, so the development of a new rocket suggests that North Korea is committed to extending its military striking range regardless of the cost. It has been developing ballistic missile since the 1970s.
US and Japanese intelligence agencies were aware of preparations for a possible missile test, but the actual event galvanized North Korea watchers.
A reclusive country that admits few foreigners, the world's last Stalinist regime generates a lot of speculation and theorizing by those beyond its borders. "These guys are skilled at intimidation," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, of the North Koreans. "Before they used the nuclear lever to get us to recognize them in various formal ways now they are using missile leverage to get our attention."
The test was quickly and variously interpreted as a sign of North Korean frustration with the US, a demonstration of ballistic firepower in order to boost missile sales to other countries, and an anniversary present. Sept. 9, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as the country is formally known, will celebrate its 50th birthday. At roughly the same time, North Korea's Kim Jong Il is expected to be inaugurated as president, the post his father Kim Il Sung held until his death in 1994.
"This was a gift from the military to Kim Jong Il," says Katsumi Sato, one of Japan's foremost Korea watchers, of the missile launch. "It was a demonstration for the upcoming inauguration."
It may also have been a demonstration for less ceremonial purposes: missile sales. The US and North Korea have been engaged in two sets of talks, one about the nuclear program and another over the country's missile program, since US officials are worried about proliferation. Defense analysts say North Korea has sold its ballistic hardware and technology to Pakistan, Iran, and other countries. Unconfirmed reports yesterday said observers from some of those nations witnessed the test.
This summer, North Korea told the US it had to continue to export missiles, thanks to US sanctions and other limitations on its economy. "Our missile export is aimed at obtaining foreign money which we need at the present," the country's official news agency said.
Now the missile test may reinforce concerns that North Korea cannot be trusted to fulfill the terms of a 1994 deal with the US, in which the country agreed to halt its Soviet-era nuclear program in exchange for reactors to be supplied by an international consortium. The new reactors are supposed to be less capable of producing material suitable for a weapons program.
At the same time, however, analysts in Tokyo, Seoul, and Washington see the test as a possible expression of the country's own frustrations with the progress of the nuclear accord. When the deal was signed four years ago, Japan and South Korea agreed to finance the new reactors at an estimated cost of nearly $5 billion, and the US promised to provide North Korea with fuel oil during the construction period.
But Congress has delayed or halted US contributions, and Asia's economic crisis may be sapping the ability of Japan and South Korea to pay for someone else's energy needs. Yesterday, in response to the test, the consortium postponed a decision on how the costs would be allocated among the countries involved.
The test involved a two-stage rocket, according to a White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity, a development that represents a major step for the country's missile program. An existing rocket, the Nodong, was sent into flight over the Sea of Japan in 1993 and is said to have a range of around 700 miles.
Yesterday's missile appeared to be what Western analysts call the Taepodong 1, which is thought to have a range of about 1,250 miles. The missile dropped its first stage over the Sea of Japan, crossed over Japanese territory, and landed in the Pacific, according to the White House official.
A congressional commission led by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in a July report that an advanced version of North Korea's new missile, called the Taepodong 2, "could reach major cities and military bases in Alaska and the smaller, westernmost islands in the Hawaiian chain. Lightweight variations of the [Taepodong 2] could fly as far as [6,000 miles], placing at risk western U.S. territory in an arc extending northwest from Phoenix, Arizona, to Madison, Wisconsin."
Gathered to assess the global missile threat to the US, the commission didn't note that the missile would be perhaps more worrisome to Japan, South Korea, and China. Japan has long been sensitive to the missile threat from North Korea and is now considering to what extent it should participate in a missile-defense development program with the US.
Kim Myong Chol, a resident of Tokyo who writes on security affairs and travels frequently to North Korea, says he doesn't know for certain what sort of missile was tested. He is more confident of its purpose: "It's a reminder to America that the US is not alone in its capability of launching missiles, as they did in Afghanistan."
Mr. Kim says there is frustration with the slow pace of the nuclear-reactor deal and over the general state of relations with the US. "The North Koreans are very unhappy," he says.
* Monitor staff writers Nicole Gaouette (Tokyo), James N. Thurman (Washington), and Jonathan S. Landay (Washington) contributed to this report.