Is North Korea Really Ready to Launch?

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I’ve refrained from commenting on this North Korea ICBM business, partly because I’m not exactly an expert on missile technology, but also because most of the information seems to be coming from the always-alarmist Japanese press and the New York Times, both of which are about as illuminating as Tarot cards. So it’s hard to know if it’s even true that North Korea is about to launch a missile that can reach California. Let’s see what better-informed people are saying. Here’s Noah Schactman:

The hype kicked into high gear when the New York Times claimed that the Norks “completed fueling a long-range ballistic missile” over the weekend. But the report is getting fishier by the second. The Norks generally rely on a highly corrosive gasoline-kerosene mix for their missile fuel, and an oxidizer containing nitric acid. It’s nasty, metal-eating stuff. And once fueled up, the missile has to be launched quickly — two or three days, I’ve been told — or else the missile is basically ruined.

It’s now been four days. And there’s been no launch. Which means it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a missile has been fueled.

Schachtman also notes that North Korea has a history of staging elaborate hoaxes of this sort in order to strengthen its bargaining position. That doesn’t clarify what’s going on, exactly, but it’s very much worth noting. And Joseph Cirincione of Carnegie, an expert on these matters, says that even if the North Koreans were going to fire off a missile that could theoretically reach the United States, they’ve botched so many missile tests that it’s not even clear that this one would be successful.

But that’s not enough to stop the panic. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry writes in the Washington Post today that we should conduct a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, although it should go without saying that this is a terrible idea if North Korea’s not, you know, actually preparing to launch missiles of any sort. The United States has “activated” its nascent missile defense system, which has proved a complete flop thus far. Jeffrey Lewis of ArmsControlWonk says any attempt to stop a Korean ICBM would almost certainly fail, and suffice to say that a failure on this front would make the Bush administration look utterly ridiculous. (Of course, if this is all just hype, and no missile is ever fired, then at least the “crisis” will garner good press for people who want to waste more money on missile defense—and maybe that’s the point.)

Meanwhile, in a little-noticed statement, Pyongyang has apparently announced a “strategic decision” to give up its nuclear weapons—possibly the first time the North Koreans have ever used such language. Obviously that doesn’t mean Kim Jong Il has suddenly decided to become nice and cuddly, but it does sound like there’s an opening for diplomacy to work, and that seems more promising than panicking over a missile launch that may not even take place. We’ll see, I suppose.

UPDATE: William Arkin also makes a convincing case that this North Korea business is wildly overblown. South Korea also appears to distrust U.S. reporting on this matter.

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