Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

North Korea's mobile nuclear missile threat

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 March, 2008, 12:00am

The US military intelligence community is worried that North Korea is developing the technology needed to fit a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile. If the North Korean regime were able to achieve this feat, it would give Pyongyang a more credible nuclear-strike capability - a step that would deeply alarm Japan and South Korea. It would also hasten moves, in co-operation with the United States, to build regional defences against ballistic missiles.

China, too, would view a North Korea armed with even a few nuclear-tipped missiles as a gravely destabilising development. This would reduce Beijing's leverage over its wayward ally and probably doom the already faltering six-party negotiations, hosted by China, to induce North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons.

North Korea earned a rare public condemnation from China and other major powers when it carried out an underground nuclear test in October 2006. Yet the North lacked any effective way of delivering a nuclear weapon to a foreign target.

However, the head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, General Michael Maples, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington last week that North Korea could have stockpiled several nuclear weapons from plutonium produced at the now shuttered Yongbyon reactor and 'may be able to successfully mate a nuclear warhead to a mobile ballistic missile'.

In similar lengthy unclassified testimony to the same committee a year ago, General Maples said only that North Korea had an ambitious ballistic-missile development programme and continued to develop the Taepodong 2, 'which could reach parts of the United States and is capable of carrying a nuclear payload'.

General Maples noted in the same testimony that the Taepodong 2 had failed shortly after launch when it was flight-tested for the first time in July 2006, although six shorter-range missiles had been successfully tested at the same time.

It is these smaller, shorter-range missiles that have now become the focus of US concern about North Korea's nuclear-strike capability. Unlike the long-range Taepodong 2, which was fired from a fixed platform above ground and could be destroyed while it was being prepared for launch, many of North Korea's shorter-range missiles are mobile. They can be hidden, moved around and fired quickly. Some can still strike targets as far away as Japan.

General Maples said last week that North Korea had 'a substantial mobile ballistic-missile force with an array of warhead options that include WMD [weapons of mass destruction] that can strike US forces and our allies in the ROK [South Korea] and Japan'. He added that the North was continuing to develop the long-range Taepodong 2 missile while also working on an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The latter may be a reference to the Taepodong X, a land-based mobile missile with a range of up to 4,000km.

In a report published in March 2006, the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in California said that North Korea had an arsenal of more than 800 ballistic missiles. Among them were at least two types that could hit Japan, the Nodong and the Taepodong 1. General Maples said that, should the six-party talks break down, the North was likely to respond with resumed production of fissile material at Yongbyon. In such a scenario, 'additional missile or nuclear tests could occur'.

China's reaction to efforts by the US, Japan and other countries to improve their capability to shoot down incoming missiles is predictable, even though these efforts may be triggered by developments in North Korea. It will increase the size of its nuclear weapons arsenal and expand the means of their delivery so that they can overwhelm any missile shield.

Michael Richardson is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment.