NAGANO, Japan — South Korea in the last few days has been busy helping North Korea make the case that the North's missiles are a major threat.
First Seoul talked its ally the United States into agreeing to an extension of the range of South Korea's missiles from 300 kilometers to 800, sufficient to reach any corner of North Korea. North Korea slammed that agreement and upped the ante, boasting that it has intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States mainland.
Then, over the weekend, an unnamed senior South Korean security official was quoted as telling a group of journalists that the North already knows or soon will know how to mount a nuclear weapon on a missile.
While residents of Alaska and the US West Coast probably needn't be in a rush to dig bomb shelters, the new developments do highlight a risky Northeast Asian arms race that involves not only the two Koreas and Japan but also China and Japan.
The North may or may not have achieved the range of which it boasted. After a failed satellite launch in April — which showed weaknesses in technology that is also used in ballistic missiles — some considered the claim a "rhetorical bluff." That's the way Scott Snyder, who directs the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, put it in a blog posting.
A different view came from Bruce Bechtol, Korea political-military specialist at Angelo State University in Texas. In an email he described an untested new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile system, displayed in an April military parade. "If – if – it was successful," he said, "it could reach the USA mainland."
"It is true that they have a missile with a proven range — 4,000 kilometers [2,400 miles] — to hit Guam," an American Pacific island territory, Bechtol said. But "we are not used to hearing the North Koreans say that they have the United States in their missile range. This is new rhetoric." Suggesting the claim might have some basis, he said, is the fact that "the North Koreans have never displayed a missile system — ever — in a military parade that was not deployed or about to be deployed."
The so far untested system — Schiller and some other analysts say only a mockup appeared in the parade — is what NATO designates a KN-08, on a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) that uses a Chinese truck for mobility.
"More disturbing" than its range, said Bechtol, the author of "Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security," "is that because it is on a TEL it would be much harder to trace before launch than other ICBM systems the North Koreans have."
"It is these other systems — Taepodong 1 and Taepodong 2 — that have proven to be failures several times: 1998, 2006, 2009, 2012," he said. "If – if – the North Koreans think they can hit the American mainland, they have not proven it with the Taepodong systems — in fact, just the opposite."
Even if the range is there, Taepodong tests so far have shown accurate targeting to be a serious problem for North Korean technology. "The safest place on Earth," said former Japanese Foreign Ministry official Tomohiko Taniguchi, is "their targeted spot."
"North Korea's missiles pose a greater threat to endangered whales than to the people of Hawaii," Ralph Cossa, president of Honolulu think tank Pacific Forum CSIS, added in an email.
Up until Friday's report there was further reassurance in an apparent consensus among experts that the North Koreans had yet to solve the technical problem of miniaturizing a nuclear weapon and mounting it as a warhead on an intercontinental missile.
The reported South Korean estimate to the contrary will not persuade everyone. A report out this month on a year-long study by RAND Corp. calls North Korea's nuclear missile program a "paper tiger."
"Potential delivery of nuclear warheads by North Korean missiles cannot be completely ruled out, but seems highly unlikely," wrote RAND researcher Mark Schiller.
While, "taking steps to defend against a conventional [i.e., non-nuclear]short-range threat seems sensible," Schiller added, "the North Korean missile program appears largely to be a political tool to gain strategic leverage, to fortify the regime's domestic power, and to deter other countries" — particularly South Korea and the US — "from military action. Operational readiness seems to be secondary."
Explaining why South Korea sees a need to expand both the range and the payload of its missiles, Chun Yung-woo, senior secretary to the South Korean president for foreign and security affairs, said according to a Yonhap story, "We will secure effective and various means to incapacitate North Korea's nuclear and missile capabilities and safeguard the lives and safety of our people if North Korea launches armed attacks."
Critics of that plan include Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asian Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. "It seems that the idea is to zap nuclear missiles in North Korea before they launch," he wrote in his blog.
"Mobile ones. Good luck finding them, and let's just hope that preempting nuclear targets doesn't start a nuclear war."
And Council on Foriegn Relation's Snyder warned that "expanded South Korean ballistic missile ranges might feed a regional arms race."
Speculating in an email on South Korea's real motivation for expanding its own missiles' reach, Robert Dujarric, director of the Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies at Temple University's Tokyo campus, said it may not be about the North Korean threat as much it's about South Korea's "desire to be acknowledged as a great power — maybe, in the long run, also about the threat from China."
North Korea's recurrent bombast has proved useful to enemies as they seek to prepare their defenses against China, a far more formidable potential foe. The US, and Japan use the North Korean threats as justification for expanding ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems — thus minimizing the need to make undiplomatic mention of the region's 800-pound gorilla.
Former diplomat Taniguchi, currently at Japan's Keio University, said it's an open secret that — far more than the open North Korean threats to obliterate the capital of its former colonial master — the potential threat posed by China "has been a chief driver for the US and Japan to jointly develop their ballistic missile defense capabilities."
China's "missiles have covered Japan's whole territory with nuclear warheads and decoys," Taniguchi said. Even with its defense budget appropriations as a whole shrinking, he said, Japan has not ceased to invest in scaling up ballistic missile defense.
"The remote second part of the threat is what Pyongyang says it has," Taniguchi said. Comparatively minor as Pyongyang's capability may be, though, its "big-mouth talk of missile threat" is "another reason why Japan has been able to sustain its budget for BMD capabilities, which in a year or two will equip all the Maritime Self Defense Force's Aegis-type destroyers with missile defense capabilities."
Japan's emphasis on missile defense contrasts with South Korea's move to expand the range and payload of its attack missiles. A Tokyo-based arms expert (who spoke anonymously because his employer must sign off on any comments to the news media) summed up by saying South Korea wants to "strike artillery, command posts, mobile SCUDs, whatever — very offensive defense. Japan's equipment is more defensive — wait 'til they shoot."
The divergent approach coincides with political tensions between Seoul and Tokyo, whose relationship these days looks more like rivalry than alliance even though each is allied separately with the US. In July, Seoul backed off at the last minute from signing what was to be called the Korea-Japan General Security of Military Information Agreement.
South Korea's President Lee Myung-bak used a longstanding dispute over ownership of some remote islands as a "handy excuse," Taniguchi complained.
In Bechtol's view "the South Korean move of acquiring ballistic missiles with longer ranges, while not acquiring ballistic missile defenses that they need to protect them from North Korea's SCUDs, is just bad military policy and a big waste of money."
The PAC-3 missile defense system that the US and Japan have been deploying "seems to be working now, and it is certainly a lot more of a deterrent than simply building missiles," Bechtol said. The US does have some batteries in South Korea, he said. "The problem is, they protect American bases. There is nothing protecting South Korean population centers and military bases except outdated and largely unreliable ballistic missile defenses from the 1990s."
Like Joe Biden debating Paul Ryan, North Korea appears to be having fun with this. According to the official Korean Central News Agency, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman on Wednesday charged that "the US is left with no moral qualifications to talk about the development of the DPRK's missile capability, as it is the chieftain that sparked off [a] new missile arms race in Northeast Asia."
Pyongyang doesn't need an excuse to provoke its enemies — even at the risk of irritating its sort-of friend, China — but is always happy to be able to marshal new justifications for its actions. Don't be surprised to see a missile or nuclear test soon, perhaps in the first few months of 2013. By then, elections in the United States, Japan and South Korea and a planned succession in China will have installed new or reshuffled administrations whose reactions Pyongyang can test along with its own technology.
Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.