The business of pointing missiles
North Korea's attempt to launch its long-range Taepodong-2 missile for the first time, last week, was a failure. But that should not obscure the success of other parts of its rocket- and warhead-development programme, or the threat they pose not just to Japan, but also to the United States and Europe.
All countries that produce intercontinental ballistic missiles suffer periodic failures - often in the initial stages of flight testing. The Taepodong-2's faults will be rectified, and there will be more flights to prove the system. Iran will be watching closely. It is North Korea's main customer in a missile business worth as much as US$1.5 billion a year for cash-strapped Pyongyang. It needs the money to further develop its weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs, and the means to deliver them.
The first launch of North Korea's shorter-range predecessor, the Taepodong-1, in 1998 soared over Japan and out into the Pacific. Then, the following year, Pyongyang announced a moratorium on flight-testing of long-range missiles. But its missile-development programme did not halt after 1999, when it tried to negotiate benefits from the US. It continued design work, testing engines and components, and assembling missiles at home, while doing flight-testing in Iran and sharing the information with Tehran. All this was done in secret.
North Korea has been selling missiles, parts and technical assistance to Iran since the 1980s. Tehran's Shahab series of missiles are North Korean derivatives. This collaboration took a big step forward late last year, when Pyongyang shipped 18 new single-stage missiles to Iran. They had been fully developed, but never flight-tested, in North Korea.
They were based on the SSN6, a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead that was launched from submarines. It was originally deployed by the Soviet Union, but the missile and warhead design technology fell into North Korean hands sometime between 1988 and 1991, when that superpower disintegrated.
Iran successfully tested the missile, which North Korea calls the Nodong-B, in January. It may be at least five more years before North Korea and Iran can jointly develop a reasonably reliable Taepodong-2-type missile with intercontinental range. But the Nodong-B, with a range of up to 4,000km, enables North Korea to target US military bases in Japan and on the island of Guam in the western Pacific. It allows Iran to hit almost all of Europe.
The Nodong-B has another capability that concerns officials responsible for defending the US mainland from missile attack. The 12-metre-long projectile could be fitted into, and fired from, a standard steel cargo container. An ordinary-looking cargo ship could carry it as commonplace deck cargo.
Such a vessel, perhaps armed with half a dozen Nodong-Bs hidden in containers ready for firing, could position itself in international waters in the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, posing a direct threat to the US.
Such a weapon would allow North Korea and Iran to evade interceptors being put in place by the US to guard against long-range missile attack.
Indeed, the 1998 Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States warned against the sea launch of shorter-range missiles. That commission was headed by Donald Rumsfeld, now US defence secretary.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment