June 23, 2006

North Korea’s Missiles Bring it Cash and Clout

By Jon Herskovitz and Jack Kim

SEOUL -- North Korea started its missile program in part to deliver a first strike on the South but it has grown into a source of cash and a possible way for a poor state with an obsolescent air force to deliver a nuclear strike.

Experts say Pyongyang lacks the technology to miniaturize a nuclear weapon for missile delivery, but it does have an arsenal capable of hitting all of South Korea and almost all of Japan.

The missile program was in part born out of the 1950-1953 Korean War when the North had trouble striking U.S. and South Korean forces in the southeastern part of the peninsula.

The missile now apparently sitting on a pad in North Korea awaiting a possible test launch is believed to be the Taepodong-2, an untested multi-stage missile that experts say Pyongyang eventually wants to develop as a means of delivering nuclear weapons thousands of kilometers (miles) away.

"The only reason North Korea has a long-range missile program is to deliver a nuclear weapon," said one diplomatic source in Seoul who is familiar with Pyongyang's intentions.

Most of the missiles in its arsenal are variants of the Soviet-designed Scud. North Korea has at least 600 of these, designed to deliver conventional, chemical or biological weapons.

"North Korea's original motive for developing ballistic missiles likely followed Soviet doctrine by viewing missiles as a form of extended-range artillery that can strike an enemy's rear during a conflict," the Center for Nonproliferation Studies wrote in a recent report.

With nuclear weapons, North Korea, a poor country of about 22.5 million, gains a seat at the table with the world's richest and most militarily advanced country, the United States.

Apart from boosting North Korea's military threat, missiles also generate cash.

Pyongyang has made hundreds of millions of dollars exporting missiles and missile technology to countries such as Iran, U.S. officials and proliferation experts say.

The backbone of its air force is 780 fighters and 80 bombers, which use aging Soviet technology. The bombers would have little chance of dropping a nuclear bomb before being shot down by the superior U.S., Japanese and South Korean air forces, experts say.

Missiles are a convenient alternative for a country such as North Korea, experts say, because they are an easier, cheaper means of delivering a weapon than building a modern air force.

One major concern for North Korea as it prepares to launch the Taepodong-2 is whether its technology is capable of firing the third-stage booster that would send a payload into space, as if failed to do in a previous test firing in 1998,.

Another failure, with U.S. intelligence and world attention tracking every second of the flight, would mean a huge loss of face for Pyongyang no matter how hard its propaganda machine works, the experts said.