(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/04/north-korea-rocket_2189481k.gif)As the United States attempts to convince North Korea to cancel a planned launch of an ICBM that is supposed to put a satellite in orbit, several Far East nations are making preparations to intercept the missile if it flies over their air space and divert air traffic from its expected flight path.
Japan, South Korea, Philippines, and Indonesia are taking steps to protect themselves from the unpredictable actions of the North Koreans, as well as the possibility that the unsophisticated design and poorly built missile might veer off course and cause damage if it crashes in their territory. Pressure on North Korea to cancel the launch has been intensifying in the last 48 hours as China and Russia – two of North Korea’s few friends in the world – have indicated their opposition to the launch. And if tensions weren’t high enough, South Korea intelligence is reporting that the North is readying another test of a nuclear weapon – a tremendously provocative action that, taken in context with the launch of the ICBM, sends an unmistakable signal that North Korea is approaching the point that it can deliver its nuclear weapons thousands of miles from its homeland.
The US has already suspended a recent agreement to supply North Korea with 240,000 metric tons of food and is threatening a complete cut-off if the missile is launched. But some analysts believe that the North Korean military is calling the shots on the missile launch and opposed the food agreement made by the civilian government. Other observers believe that the North Korean government has calculated that it is more important to boost the image of their new leader, Kim Jong-Un, than bow to pressure from the US in order to feed its starving population.
The missile launch is supposed to take place any time between April 12-16, although a spokesman for the North Koreans says it is ready to fly now. Washington not only believes the launch will be “provocative,” but that it would be a direct threat to regional security.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pointed out after talks with the Japanese foreign minister that the launch would violate several UN Security Council resolutions. UN Ambassador Susan Rice warned that there was “no disagreement among members of the [security] council that this is a provocative act, and an act that the North Koreans should refrain from undertaking.” Both Rice and Clinton said that “appropriate action” would be taken at the UN if North Korea went through with its plans.
Japan and South Korea will have their anti-missile defenses on high alert and will attempt to shoot down the missile if it violates their air space. The projected path of the missile is over water but past launches by North Korea have not been accurate. In 1998, a long range missile fired from North Korea passed over Japanese territory eventually falling into the ocean. There have also been several failures of North Korean rockets, including several that have blown up on the pad or shortly after liftoff. Japan has deployed its interceptors from southernmost Okinawa to the capital Tokyo, as well as sending three Aegis class destroyers armed with anti-missile technology into the East China Sea area. Experts worry that if Japan or South Korea end up shooting down the missile, that the North would take some kind of retaliatory action that might ratchet up tensions in the region even more.
The waywardness of North Korea’s missiles in the past has prompted authorities in several countries to take precautions this time by diverting aircraft from their normal routes in order to keep them out of the way of any hazard. About 20 flights, including “Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Korean Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Delta Air Lines” will be re-routed between Thursday and Monday – the expected dates for the missile launch.
The North Korean government dismissed concerns over the launch of the missile by claiming “a) the rocket uses liquid fuel not solid fuel and b) if this was actually a ballistic missile, it would require a much larger payload than is currently being used.” John Hudson, writing in the Atlantic Wire, destroys the North Korean’s argument, pointing out that “a ballistic missile can contain ‘either liquid or solid fuel.’” An example was the American Titan I and II ICBM that was propelled by liquid fuel and carried a large nuclear payload. Titans were still in the US arsenal into the 1980s.
Hudson writes that the claim about payload size is more realistic, but still worrisome. The point isn’t how much the satellite weighs, but rather what the payload capability of the Taepdong 2 missile is. Some experts think that the potential payload of the missile is 9 times larger than the announced weight of the satellite. If that were the case, the North Koreans are well on their way to marrying the bomb with a delivery vehicle capable of hitting the West coast of the US.
It seems incomprehensible that with their country broke and starving, that the North Koreans would deliberately antagonize the United States to the point that we would refuse to honor a deal to supply them with 240,000 tons of food that we negotiated just last month. White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters, “It’s impossible to imagine that we would be able to follow through (and) provide the nutritional assistance that we had planned on providing, given what would be a flagrant violation of North Korea’s basic international obligations.”
But the inner workings of the power centers in North Korea are sometimes unknowable. Some experts believe that the North Koreans think it more important to boost the image of their young leader Kim Jong-Un by showing that the entire world has its eyes on the country in advance of what the official newspapers are referring to as the “glorious” rocket launch. Apparently, the new leader is not universally admired among the North Korean people and it is thought that the launch will shore up support for Kim. The launch is being portrayed as part of the 100th birthday celebration of the nation’s founding dictator Kim Il-Sung, Kim’s grandfather – a man elevated to the status of a deity.
There is also speculation that the deal with the US for food was opposed by the military, and the generals scuttled the agreement by pushing for this launch. In what is perhaps unrelated news – or not, given the difficulty in reading the tea leaves from inside the leadership caste – a new defense minister was named along with the elevation of two other generals to the rank of vice marshal. It could be that the shakeup was more connected to the party congress that starts tomorrow rather than any internal bickering over the missile launch and food deal. It is doubtful if we’ll ever be sure.
The missile launch may also be just the start of a series of North Korean provocations. South Korean intelligence is reporting that the signs are present that indicate the North may be planning another test of a nuclear weapon. Significantly, Hillary Clinton warned “This new threat comes only weeks after North Korea agreed to a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing,” said Clinton. “The speed of the turnaround raises questions about Pyongyang’s seriousness in saying that it desires to improve relations with us and its neighbors.”
“The effort is believed to be in its final stages,” said the report.“The soil around the tunnel’s entrance appeared to have been brought in from another region and has been growing in amount since March.” But the opposition press in South Korea speculates that the report is bogus as the government tries to garner support in advance of elections on Wednesday.
But the intelligence fits the pattern of past North Korean nuclear tests, which closely followed their missile launches. If Secretary Clinton is right and further “provocative actions” are taken by the North following the missile launch, tensions in the Far East are sure to rise.
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