Washington Takes Its Time To Assess North Korean Missile Capability. But Japan Says Time’s Running Out. And It’s Probably Right
Kim Watanabe writes from Tokyo: Defence and Foreign Ministry officials here are going line by line over a report from Seoul that the North Korean missile launch on December 12th was actually a test launch for a weapons system with a range of 10,000 kilometres. Officials here say that if the South Korean analysis is correct then the whole Strategic Option Plan (SOP) for regional relations with North Korea must be re-written. The importance of this initial assessment is that SOP was developed by Washington and was considered to be more cautious than the early Japanese assessment written two months before the missile launch.
The suggestion therefore is that the United States has been reluctant to anticipate the ability of North Korean engineers to overcome earlier design faults in the development of what could become an ICBM – Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile. While attention has been focused on North Korea introducing a delivery system for a warhead – conventional or nuclear – that could reach the continental US, the Japanese anxiety has been for regional, not intercontinental, consequences.
What seems to be happening here in Tokyo is to accent the Japanese instinct to anticipate the eventuality as opposed to the present. The analysis and presentation of the Japanese report on the North Korean Unha-3 rocket capability is to a large extent based on two factors: that which is already known coupled with examination reports on rocket debris recovered by the Japanese.
The immediate conclusion is that the test firing did not prove that the North Koreans have the ability to build a re-entry vehicle. This means that although Unha-3 could in theory put a nuclear warhead into space, it has yet to develop that re-entry system that can bring it back to earth and deliver it to a target. The second conclusion remains the only advancement in what is known about Unha-3: it can easily reach a three-stage range of 10,000km with a 500-600kg warhead (the satellite weight). That suggests that the North Koreans could not, as yet, put together an ICBM capability. The nuclear warhead would have to be much heavier than the present system could carry. That capability could be a couple of years away with present development schedules.
Moreover, the missile’s parts recovered and examined by Japanese experts suggest that the missile was crudely made with techniques not used for decades including very rough welding. What the Japanese experts do not say is the Koreans have yet to get their hands on a third stage of the rocket. Only then will they be up to speed on the possibility of carrying a re-entry vehicle.
It would seem that while the American analysts are taking time to get together what they know about the launch, the Japanese are saying that it is only a matter of time before the North Koreans turn want-to into can-do. In other words, the Japanese believe it is inevitable that North Korea will become a fully developed nuclear state with the delivery systems to hold the region to ransom.
They also point out that a third interested party in this development is China. The rest of the world has supposed China regards North Korea as a client state. This is not so. North Korea will go its own way, according to Japanese analysts.
The Chinese concern on a broader scale is too often overlooked. China is surrounded by nuclear weapons states – Russia, India and Pakistan , with North Korea joining that club soon. That makes for an increasingly instability add-on to an already tense situation in the region.