“North Korea test-fired at least six missiles over the Sea of Japan on Wednesday morning, including an intercontinental ballistic missile that apparently failed or was aborted 42 seconds after it was launched,” the Times is reporting.
Of the launchings, intelligence officials focused most of their attention on the intercontinental missile, called the Taepodong 2, which American spy satellites have been watching on a remote launching pad for more than a month.
It is designed to be capable of reaching Alaska, and perhaps the West Coast of the United States, but American officials who tracked its launching said it fell into the Sea of Japan before its first stage burned out.
“The Taepodong obviously was a failure that tells you something about capabilities,” Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, told reporters in a phone call on Tuesday evening in Washington…
The other missiles that the North fired appeared to be a mix of short-range Scud-C missiles and intermediate-range Rodong missiles, of the kind that the North has sold to Iran, Pakistan and other nations. Those missiles also landed in the Sea of Japan…
Intelligence from American satellite photographs indicated in mid-June that the North was proceeding with the test-firing of the Taepodong 2 at a launching pad on North Korea’s remote east coast. Satellite photographs showed that the North Koreans had taken steps to put fuel into the missile, but the missile sat there until Wednesday morning, leading to speculation [especially on this site — ed.] that the North was simply staging the event in order to gain attention from the United States…
But the North contradicted expert opinion by launching its long-range missile in predawn darkness today.
The surprise launch is bad news for Pyongyang, Joe Cirincione says over at Arms Control Wonk HQ.
The North Koreans have now blown it by actually testing a system that was always worth much more as a bargaining chip than as a military capability. Continued attempts to hype the threat (by either the DPRK or the Missile Defense Agency) will now be much harder to make with a straight face… [And] all those reporters and analysts who have been talking about both the North Korean missiles and the US anti-missiles as if both were proven capabilities should slap themselves in the face and snap out of it.
UPDATE 07/05/06 12:26 AM: David here. Missile defense expert Philip Coyle from the Center for Defense Information just emailed me with this:
I’m sure you noticed that the press has been confused about how many missiles North Korea actually fired. At first it was three, then four or five, then six. But the Yonhap news agency in South Korea says North Korea fired 10 missiles, not six. At the time of Tony Snow’s press briefing with National Security Advisor Steve Hadley, the White House thought only three had been fired.
And at this writing Northern Command will only confirm six. So maybe our military has been confused too.
This displays one of the vulnerabilities of missile defense. If you don’t see all of the missiles an enemy fires, or if they fire too many, even the most futuristic missile defenses we can imagine will be overwhelmed.
And by coordinating its missile launches with the U.S. shuttle launch, North Korea showed that any country can aspire to have the capability to conduct peaceful space launches.
David again. Just to clarify on Phil’s behalf, that last comment about “peaceful space launches” was intended as sarcasm.
UPDATE 08:03 AM: The Norks just fired off another one.
UPDATE 09:12 AM: For a completely different view, check out what Stratfor has to say: “A failed launch may ultimately offer North Korea greater choices than other scenarios might have.”
Had Pyongyang succeeded, even Seoul might have thought twice about continued economic contacts with the North. And had the United States or Japan shot the missile down, Pyongyang would very quickly have been forced to decide whether to consider the move an act of war and launch a counterstrike, or just complain loudly and demonstrate its own impotence. A failed test, if a test was to be carried out, provides renewed avenues for negotiation.
China will be the first to offer its services in figuring out what next for North Korea. Pyongyang will be more beholden to Beijing following the test, as North Korea tries to gauge its options and how best to play down the failure. It has lost its missile leverage now, and will need its northern neighbor even more. For its part, China will take this added leverage with the North for its own negotiations with the United States.
The failed launch may bring Washington back into the six-party talks or to the informal six-party talks Beijing recently suggested as U.S. officials breathe a collective sigh of relief at not having been forced to decide whether to try to shoot down the North Korean missile. Thus, Washington can say it was ready for the launch without having had to prove its anti-missile system in a real-life situation. And the United States also enjoys the advantage of a North Korea weakened for now by the failed test.
The question now is what happens inside Pyongyang. A failure of a major economic, political and military expenditure could quickly lead to infighting as blame is assigned and passed and next steps are debated. While North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has shown himself quite adept at managing his place in power, the loss of a key political lever is sure to create at least a brief internal political crisis. While the North may have already thought through the implications of failure, thinking and facing reality are rather different. If Pyongyang makes quick, clear steps in the coming days, it will suggest it was either well-prepared for failure or aborted the launch itself. If not, expect to see the North close in on itself, and perhaps turn to neighbor China for advice and protection.
Either way, a major shift in North Korean behavior can be expected in the coming months.