Pyongyang’s announcement that it intends to send a communications satellite into orbit during a five-day window beginning on Saturday has ratcheted up tensions in the region. Japan, whose main island of Honshu lies under the projected flight path, is deploying missile defense systems and two U.S. warships with missile-interception capabilities are also in the area.
North Korea told international aviation and maritime authorities that its Kwangmyongsong-2 (“bright star”) satellite will be carried into space by a launcher it calls Unha-2, which U.S. experts say is believed to be derived from the long-range Taepodong-2 missile. The Taepodong-2 has never been successfully flight tested, but in theory is capable of reaching Alaska.
(North Korea claims to have sent Kwangmyongsong-1 into orbit in 1998, although no evidence was ever found. Instead, the U.S. and others believe that launch to have been a test of an intermediate-range Taepodong-1 ballistic missile which overflew Japan before ditching in the Pacific Ocean.)
The U.S. and Japan say that launching a rocket – whether as a satellite launch attempt or a ballistic missile flight test – will violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.
“I don’t know anyone at a senior level in the American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Fox News in an interview on Sunday.
As the Japanese parliament on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution urging North Korea not to go ahead with the launch, Prime Minister Taro Aso said that if it did, Japan would take the issue to the Security Council.
Earlier, North Korea warned through its official media that if its “satellite” launch is raised by the Security Council, then the six-party talks over its nuclear weapons program would “rupture” completely. It also threatened to take unspecified “stronger measures.”
The last time North Korea fired missiles, in mid-2006, the Security Council passed a condemnatory resolution. Three months later Pyongyang tested a nuclear device.
The planned launch comes just two months after Iran launched a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket, the Safir-2, successfully putting a small satellite into orbit. In doing so it not only joined the exclusive club of nations boasting that ability but also, according to experts, demonstrated significant progress towards an intercontinental ballistic missile capability.
North Korean officials reportedly witnessed the Iranian launch, and a Japanese newspaper reported this week that a 15-strong Iranian team is now in North Korea, where they are expected to observe the early April launch.
The Sankei Shimbun said the Iranians, including senior officials from the Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, had been in North Korea since the beginning of March.
The Tehran-based entity, which is responsible for Iran’s ballistic missile program, has been listed by the U.S., British and Japanese governments for proliferation activities, and since as early as April 2000 has been subjected to U.S. sanctions for cooperating with North Korea in violation of missile export controls.
The Iranian Embassy in Tokyo issued a statement calling the Japanese report “politically-motivated” and denying any missile or military cooperation between Iran and North Korea.
But as long ago as the early 1990s, missile collaboration was underway. When North Korea in May 1993 tested its medium-range Nodong missile, Iranian experts attended, according to media reports at the time. Iran subsequently developed the Shahab-3, testing it in 1998 and 1991 with North Koreans this time reportedly observing.
Although then Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani insisted the Shahab-3 was “entirely” Iranian-made, scientists said the missile, whose range of at least 620 miles threatens Israel as well as U.S. forces in the Gulf, was based on the Nodong (as was Iran’s earlier Shahab-2 essentially the same as an earlier North Korean Scud missile, the Hwasong-6).
Unclassified CIA reports to Congress on the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and related technology have over a number of years noted a longstanding Iran-North Korea relationship in developing ballistic missile technology.
The reports identified North Korea as a key provider of missile technology, naming Iran as well as Syria, Pakistan and Libya, among its customers.
In Pakistan’s case, South Asian security analysts believe North Korea provided missile technology in return for nuclear know-how supplied by the black-market network run by A.Q. Khan. The exposure of the Khan proliferation activities in 2004 and Libya’s decision the previous year to shut down its WMD and missile programs deprived North Korea of customers – and major sources of hard currency.
By 2006, the CIA was reporting that Iran and Syria remained the countries of principal concern with regard to sales of North Korean missile technology.
In July of that year, after North Korea fired a Taepodong-2 – which aborted 40 seconds after launch – as well as several Nodongs and short-range Hwasongs, administration officials told U.S. lawmakers that Iranians had witnessed the launches.
Because North Korea has successfully tested a nuclear device – and because Iran is suspected to have similar ambitions – the two regimes’ development of missiles capable of carrying payloads long distances is a significant security concern.
The chairman of South Korea‘s Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Kim Tae-young, said last October that North Korea may be working on developing a nuclear warhead light enough to be carried on a missile.
Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Michael Maples told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a prepared statement this month that “North Korea may be able to successfully mate a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile.”
Gates told Fox News that while the U.S. believes that to be North Korea’s long-term intent, “I personally would be skeptical that they have the ability right now to do that.”