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North Korea's missile test

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COMMENTS

6 April 2009 09:35

That North Korea failed to put a satellite into orbit is significant for its political symbolism but is less important militarily. According to this analysis, what matters is that North Korea has successfully tested the first two stages of its Taepo-Dong 2 missile, which is a milestone on the way to a true inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.

That said, North Korea is some time away from an ICBM and from being able to miniaturise a nuclear warhead to fit it under the nosecone of such a missile. And as this article describes, Taepo-Dong 2 is liquid-fuelled and has to be fired from a launchpad rather than a silo, making it cumbersome and vulnerable as a military weapon.

Where that article goes a little off the rails is to conclude that North Korea therefore does not yet have a nuclear deterrent. Long-range missiles and miniaturised warheads are just a means to an end — delivering a weapon to a target — but this can be done in other ways. The possibility that North Korea could today pack a crude nuclear device into a shipping container and smuggle it to a port of its choice is itself a deterrent of sorts. 

So North Korea is at the very least on the threshold of being a nuclear-armed state. How to respond? It seems we go through a pretty regular cycle when it comes to North Korea: provocation (the launch) leads to condemnation followed by punishment, then mutual climbdowns and a resumption of talks.

There are no good options, but this cycle seems a little self-defeating, and perhaps gives North Korea more attention than it deserves. So given that expressions of outrage don't seem to achieve very much, perhaps a show of indifference might be more productive. It was encouraging, in that regard, to see US Defense Secretary Gates last week ruling out the possibility of shooting down North Korea's missile.

Despite North Korea's nascent nuclear capability, the powers arrayed against them are militarily, economically and diplomatically in a position of extraordinary strength relative to Pyongyang. They should act like it, rather than encouraging North Korea's misbehaviour through over-reaction.

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