Global Policy Forum

Is North Korea Ready to Fire Rocket?


Pyongyang Has Missile Parts Ready,
According to Seoul Official

By Doug Struck

Washington Post
August 12, 1999

It has become a bit of a parlor game here: guessing whether North Korea will test-fire a long-range missile. ''We have a bet,'' confided one of two top staff members in the presidential Blue House. ''I say yes, he says no.''

The question is puzzling leaders from Washington to Tokyo to Seoul, and the outcome may have a seismic effect on this region. The Pentagon said Tuesday that it was positioning two navy observation ships to watch for the launch. U.S. interest is piqued by predictions that this missile might have the range to reach Alaska or Hawaii.

The South Korean intelligence chief, Chun Yong Taek, told a parliamentary hearing in Seoul on Wednesday that North Korea had finished making the missile parts, but that it would take at least three weeks to transport and assemble them for launch. ''North Korea appears to be weighing possible economic and political losses and gains,'' Mr. Chun said, according to reports from the closed hearing. He said that Pyongyang had conducted two rocket-engine propulsion tests, on May 5 and May 21, in an apparent attempt to build a more powerful rocket to propel its missile, and had enlarged its missile launch platform and renovated its fuel pipeline to the platform.

In Washington, the Pentagon spokesman, Ken Bacon, said Tuesday that ''we've worked very hard to convince North Korea that it's in their interest and in the interest of regional stability not to carry out this missile test.'' ''North Korea,'' he added, ''will have to live with the consequences.'' The diplomatic scramble to discourage North Korea is not to prevent an immediate threat - this Taepodong-2 missile, if it goes off, would fall harmlessly somewhere in the Pacific. But the test would subtly but significantly change relations that keep this region stable.

Japan, which has kept a pacifist stance, now is talking about getting spy satellites, anti-ballistic missiles and bomber refueling planes and is considering changing its ''peace constitution.'' Such talk worries its neighbors, including China and both Koreas, which remember Japan's zealous military ambitions and brutal occupation. South Korea, historically held in check by the United States, now wants U.S. approval for its own long-range missiles.

What all of the parties have done is raise the stakes, and the betting here is that North Korea will weigh the scorecard and decide not to fire the missile. A common explanation for Pyongyang's behavior is that it hopes its missile threats blackmail other nations to provide greater assistance. That worked in 1994 and again this year when negotiations to stop suspected nuclear development left Pyongyang with added aid.

Lee Jung Hoon, chairman of the Department of International Studies at Yonsei University, said: ''By threatening, acting irrational, they've been able to get a lot of concessions. Why should they stop that pattern?''

But the tactic is wearing thin. The Japanese, and many in the U.S. Congress, are growing impatient. Furthermore, North Korea has bypassed recent opportunities to make that deal; now North Korea stands to lose all it won in the past if it fires the missile. ''What's the grand strategy of North Korea?'' said Kyongsoo Lho, professor at Seoul National University. ''If it's extracting concessions, I would have to say that a package deal would get them more than firing off a missile.''

But Cho Myung Chul, a member of the ruling elite class in North Korea who defected to South Korea, maintains that the North Koreans use different calculations from those of the West. What seems perplexing action by the rest of the world is perfectly understandable within the closed, isolated country. ''North Koreans have the idea that the United States will attack them. They truly believe that,'' Mr. Cho said in his office, where he studies his former homeland for the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy.

The regime uses that fear to rally the populace, whipping up intense passions in the process, and justifying shortages, he said. When the Taepodong-1 missile launch last year startled the United Sates and Japan, there was jubilation in the streets, said Mr. Cho, who studies news and intelligence reports from the north. ''The public says, 'We have starved and worked hard, but look, we have achieved this great, good thing,''' Mr. Cho said. That source of pride, in a nation in which ''self reliance'' is almost a religion, encourages sacrifices, he added. ''Nobody in North Korea would say, 'Don't fire this missile, and instead give us food.' That's just not their mentality,'' he said.

More Information on Sanctions in North Korea


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