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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Missile Roundup

by | December 31st, 2012 | 07:00 am
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It is now clear that the debate over North Korea at the UNSC is going to be a long slog. China is digging in against any new sanctions—or any with bite—and will probably even oppose a resolution as opposed to a weaker presidential statement. In the meantime, information coming out of the launch risks the standard “underestimation to overestimation” cycle. While we wait for events in New York to unfold, we round up a few things we found useful in the last week, including significant ideas from Mort Halperin about how to move the political process forward.

The South Korean retrieval of debris from the launch suggests what everyone already knew: that this was both a satellite launch and a test of technologies that are relevant for developing intercontinental-range missile capabilities. The ROK Ministry of National Defense (MND) news conference revealed the following technical points about the launch:

  • The oxidizer used in the Unha-3 space launch vehicle (SLV), red fuming nitric acid, was used in Soviet Scuds as well as Iranian and North Korean variants.  Some analysts have used this as proof that this was, in effect, a missile test because satellite launches elsewhere have used more advanced oxidizers and both liquid and solid fuels in the booster. But this seems like a red herring to us; the oxidizer just seems to reflect North Korean technological capabilities. Moreover, the launch worked.
  • The Unha-3  first stage used four Nodong missile engines, and the second stage used one Scud missile engine.
  • The MND spokesman claimed that a simulation showed that the Unha-3 is capable of carrying 500 kilograms of payload 10,000 kilometers. That it could carry such a payload in theory does not mean that the North Koreans could in fact carry off such a feat. They have not demonstrated the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and deliver it at intercontinental range with a functioning reentry vehicle.
  • The materials will be closely scrutinized for sources of foreign supply. The spokesman made reference to an Iranian connection, but was not specific about what it was (or at least not in the coverage we have seen; John Park summarizes the links and suspicions for the National Bureau of Asian Research). Some components were identified as imported, but the MND report was at pains to underline that no materials recovered to date have violated the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). A tightening of export controls through the MTCR could be a piece of a post-launch sanctions push.

A few things from around the blogosphere:

  • Foster Klug and Matthew Pennington at The Christian Science Monitor round up the skeptical voices noting that a single test hardly makes for a credible ICBM capability. David Wright at The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists lays out the “underestimation to overestimation” point as well. We agree.
  • Among the skeptical voices cited by Klug and Pennington are Brian Wedeen, who has a long and useful post at Wired. Wedeen gets off on a bit of a wrong foot by explaining why the test was technically not a missile launch since the SLV was not re-entering; no one said it was literally a missile test, only that the technologies are cognate. But he does have interesting technical details on the launch as well as on the North Koreans’ partly-successful campaign to deceive the intelligence community about the timing of the launch. Such deception may have interfered with the ability to track the launch as closely as we would have liked.

What effect will the launch have on the larger strategic issues? A brief sample of ideas we will revisit in more detail in coming weeks:

  • Victor Cha reflects the more outraged received wisdom for CSIS, sending the echo chamber into high gear (for example, The Washington Times treats his assessment of North Korean capabilities as definitive). None other than Phyllis Shlafly has already penned the predictable “we-need-missile-defense” argument, and she is not talking about theatre missile defense but for the homeland.
  • By far the most novel set of ideas—floated pre-launch—have come from Mort Halperin at a conference organized by Peter Hayes of the Nautilus Institute; Hayes’ summary was published in Global Asia and clearly requires a more extended discussion; we come back to it next week. But the gist is that we should go for the grand bargain. Hayes doesn’t believe the missile test should get in the way of Halperin’s proposal, saying that the changed political line-up across the major powers in the region provides an opportunity.
  • Daniel Pinkston at the International Crisis Group blasts the engagers and makes one of the strongest cases we have seen for why negotiation is pointless. The persistence of military-first dogma means that the regime has no interest in such negotiations, but is rather seeking de facto nuclear and missile power status. His solution: containment.

Our view is that the regime lucked out by throwing a lot of resources at a single successful test. Can they throw the resources at the string of tests required to generate a robust and credible ICBM capability? The missile launch has clearly provided a major political boost to the new leadership, but that could actually mitigate the need to test again. In the post cited above, Victor Cha notes that “the North Koreans have done a provocation within an average of 18 weeks after every South Korean election dating back to 1992.” However as investment prospectuses always say, the past is no guide to future returns and we are betting against another test—long-run missile or nuclear—over the next six months.

That prognosis will depend on how the Northeast Asian alliance partners play their cards. If the Chinese block meaningful Security Council action, and the US, Japan and South Korea cooperate quietly to close any export control loopholes and add some sanctions, the cycle we have noted before of missile test, UN condemnation, DPRK outrage and nuclear test might be broken.

That outcome still leaves us nowhere in terms of moving toward meaningful talks. The Halperin proposal bears close scrutiny because it is politically well-crafted. It combines the promise of a grand bargain with a recognition of the need to “strengthen conventional military forces, deepen US alliances and further reduce already-diminished nuclear extended deterrence.” In this combination, it is reminiscent of the Perry approach. But it still raises the political question of whether the Obama administration is going to make the offer to relaunch the Six Party Talks process in the shadow of military threats at the same time that it is trying to establish the credibility of the pivot. That is a difficult dance.

We believe that crux of the issue is not to be found in complex inducements but in North Korea’s domestic politics. The succession is ongoing. To date, we have seen no evidence—none—that the new leadership is interested in foregoing hard-won nuclear and missile capabilities, capabilities that have been key in the regime’s domestic legitimation efforts. In such a setting, it is not clear what the purpose of talks would be except to effectively acknowledge North Korea as a nuclear power. There may be gain among the Five Parties in floating the Halperin proposal in a serious way and we should jump on any signal that the North Koreans are seriously interested in shifting course. But who is going to deliver North Korea?