North Korean Missile Panic Follows Usual Script

The latest rendition of the Japan and the North Korean missile kabuki play is moving according to a familiar script. The scenario goes something like this: Pyongyang announces it plans to launch a long-range missile (or intelligence sources indicate it will).

Japan makes a big show of moving Patriot anti-missile missiles into position. Naval vessels equipped with anti-missile defenses move out of port into the Sea of Japan. The United States pledges support. The feared day arrives and the missile fizzles out, the Patriots go back to their bases, the ships back to port.

All of this is playing out except for the fizzle part, which, as of this writing, is an unknown, although the track record of previous test launches is not that encouraging for North Korea?s leaders. If in fact the missile works this time, it would be the first successful test since the first attempt in 1998.

Pyongyang has announced that it plans to test fire a long-range missile from its Space Center on the west coast in sometime between Dec 17 (the one-year anniversary of death of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il), and Dec.22, although there are signs it might be delayed due to bad weather or technical glitches.

The test, if it comes off, would take place immediately following the Dec, 16 general election in Japan, and the Dec. 19 South Korean presidential election. What impact the threat might have on the elections is unclear, although the reminder of North Korean belligerence coupled with the territorial dispute with China might make the public more concerned to security issues. That would play into the hands of the more hawkish contenders.

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda made a show of inspecting Patriot missiles deployed to defend Tokyo, and it is understood that he plans to spend the last week before the election close to the prime minister?s office between 7 a.m. and noon (the time period the North says it will fire off the missile) to keep on top of things, when he might be better off campaigning.

This would be North Korea?s fifth test of a long-range missile. Of these, two missiles, including last year?s test, have exploded shortly after being launched; the other two fell harmlessly in the North Pacific without putting a satellite in orbit (Pyongyang claims success, but those who keep watch on these things dispute this).

A quick look at the map shows that North Korea can't test-fire a long-range missile without violating some important country?s air space. The two partially successful missiles were launched from sites on the country?s east coast, directly over the northern part of Honshu island without a by-your leave with Tokyo. Not surprising that Tokyo would take offense.

It is only a short hop over the Sea of Japan, so there was a possibility that the first or maybe second stages of the rocket would fall on Japanese soil. That was the rationale for stationing the anti-missile defenses along the projected path, not to shoot the ?war head? but to blow up any falling debris. Apparently it was better for a shower of bits and pieces to fall on Japan than one big chunk.

Since then the North Koreans have moved their launch site to the western side of the country and adopted a new trajectory which avoids most but not all of Japan or other countries. The missile is aimed on a due south trajectory which means it might pass over one or two of the small Japanese islands at the extreme end of the Ryukyu chain before plunging into the Pacific north of the Philippines.

That means the missile would probably violate Japanese air space for no more than a second or two. It would also traverse a much vaster amount of ocean, making it nearly certain that the first and second stages should fall harmlessly into the water long before reaching any part of Japanese airspace. Nevertheless, the Japanese self-defense forces have deployed Patriot missiles to Okinawa further south.

Pyongyang, of course, maintains that the missile is designed purely to put an earth-scanning satellite into orbit. Other countries suspect it is trying to develop a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead over great distances, even as far as the US mainland.

Korea?s determination to tie launches to milestone dates in the ruling Kim family is another reason to wonder about the seriousness of the program. Who in his right mind would want to attempt a missile launch in the middle of winter in North Korea ? northern North Korea ? just because the Dear Leader died on Dec. 17 one year ago?

It is not for nothing that America launches its missiles from Florida or Southern California, not Maine or North Dakota. Indeed, it has been reported that the missile launching has been delayed by heavy snow fall.

It doesn?t seem that the North Koreans have acquired the skills to build a reliable ballistic missile -? unless this latest test, assuming it gets off the ground, is any different. It has been 14 years since the first test-firing to the fourth test last April that blew up shortly after launch. By contrast, in 14 years Americans went from ?it blew up on the launching pad? to landing on the moon.

One thing is fairly certain. The North Koreans are not getting much help from their former allies China and Russia. If the Chinese were involved in the program, the North Koreans would have put a man in orbit by now. After all, the Chinese have managed to put half a dozen ?taikonaughts? into earth orbit.

The purported launch gave Tokyo an excuse to place patriot missiles, at least temporarily, on Ishigaki island, the southernmost of the Okinawa chain. It was a subtle way of reminding China that it is Japanese territory and will be defended not just against errant North Korean missiles but by any attempt by Beijing to expand its territorial claims in the East China Sea.