Missiles Alive

By Hickey, Jennifer G. | Insight on the News, March 22, 1999 | Go to article overview

Missiles Alive


Hickey, Jennifer G., Insight on the News


North Korea's missile-development program is in high gear and, with help from the Chinese and others, Pyongyang now may have missiles capable of striking Alaska and Hawaii.

George Tenet, director of the CIA, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee in early February to report on "current and projected national-security threats." Addressing the usual suspects -- Iran, Iraq, China, India and Pakistan -- Tenet spoke plainly about Pyongyang. "I can hardly overstate my concern about North Korea. In nearly all respects, the situation there has become more volatile and unpredictable," he warned.

A mere three weeks later, a report in the Washington Times detailed the sharing of space technology between communist China and North Korea, causing even greater concern in the intelligence community and among defense analysts. While noting that the report is nothing new because there has been "some solid reporting from the mid-1990s that North Korean engineers visited China in the early stages of its missile program," Richard Fisher, a defense analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, nonetheless sees the report as worrying.

"What concerns me the most is that what we are seeing is really the exponential growth of an organic relationship in which North Korea, China, Pakistan and Iran are either indirectly or directly sharing missile technology in ways that result in ever better North Korean and Iranian missiles," Fisher tells Insight.

But North Korea has been of concern to U.S. national-security agencies for decades. The long-term U.S. involvement in the Korean peninsula began on June 25, 1950, when the North, backed by the Stalinist Soviet Union, launched a full-scale invasion of the South. North Korea always had maintained that it crossed the 38th parallel solely because it had been provoked by the South, but Li Sancho, a North Korean ambassador to the Soviet Union, said Kim II Sung discussed plans to invade the South with Stalin and to use a border incident as a ruse.

The United States entered the war on the side of the South, fighting for the first time under the flag of the United Nations. By the time a cease-fire was signed on July 27, 1953, the lives of 54,248 Americans had been sacrificed, with 8,169 missing in action and 389 prisoners of war for whom there has been no accounting. No peace treaty ever has been signed.

Although the war lasted only three years, the North Koreans have continued for the last 45 years to engage in acts of aggression and terrorism ranging from hijacking a South Korean airliner in 1958 to plotting to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan in 1982 and sending several hundred troops across the military demarcation line in 1996.

The desire of the North Koreans to challenge U.S. support for the South can be seen in its rigid dedication to building ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. The profound impact of the threat posed by North Korea was felt Aug. 31, 1998, when the North Koreans attempted to launch a satellite on the Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile. Shortly after the Japan Defense Agency received information about a possible test, Japan took precautionary steps by deploying ships with high-tech missile-detecting equipment to the Sea of Japan. While relatively unfazed by the launch itself, the agency was surprised by the missile's range. "We did not expect one of its missiles to reach the Pacific Ocean," an agency official told Japan's Daily Yomiuri.

U.S. officials were caught even more off-guard when they failed to detect plans to test the Taepo Dong-1. A Dec. 8, 1998, speech by Robert Walpole, national intelligence officer for strategic and nuclear programs, expressed the shock of defense officials in the United States. "Although the North Koreans failed to place their satellite into orbit," conceded Walpole, "they tested some important aspects of ICBM development and flight ... …

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