The North Korean wild card

by Michael Richardson

In a quantum leap over North Korea’s controversial though unsuccessful long-range rocket launch on April 13, India plans to test not just one but three ballistic missiles in quick succession over the next week, including the first firing of its Agni 5 missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers.

All three of the different range Indian missiles can be armed with nuclear warheads. But a successful launch of the Agni 5 would bring India close to membership of the elite club of nuclear-armed nations that have intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with ranges of more than 5,500 km. Even with a strike distance slightly below this threshold, the Agni 5 can cover the whole of China — India’s strategic rival — which has ICBMs that can travel over 11,000 km. The Agni 5 is designed to carry multiple warheads that could hit widely dispersed targets.

While China and its ally Pakistan may object to India’s missile tests through April 25, many other countries that joined the condemnation of North Korea’s failed attempt to launch of what it said was a peaceful satellite into space will raise no strong objections to India’s actions, despite its refusal to join the treaty preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Those countries, including Japan, are confident that they will not be targeted by India’s atomic arsenal even as its strike range increases. They also believe that India will keep a tight guard on its nuclear and missile technology.

North Korea is different. For years, it has exported missiles and their components, as well as sensitive nuclear know-how, to help pay for its own program to become fully nuclear capable. It has exploded two nuclear devices underground and is expected to carry out another test soon.

Japan, South Korea, the United States and other governments that condemned the launch argued that it was a disguised missile test banned by United Nations Security Council resolutions, even though the rocket carried a small satellite, not a warhead or dummy warhead.

The mid-air explosion of North Korea’s three-stage Taepodong-2 rocket barely three minutes after lift-off was a spectacular failure, the fourth in a row of so-called space launches since 1998. Yet despite the setbacks, there is little doubt about the determination of the military-backed Kim regime in North Korea to develop nuclear-tipped missiles as the ultimate guarantor of the regime’s survival.

The U.S. director of national intelligence reported to Congress recently that North Korea was “among the world’s leading suppliers of ballistic missiles and related technologies” and “remains committed” to selling them to foreign customers.

“Over the years, it has exported ballistic missile-related equipment, components, materials, technical expertise, and/or full missile systems to countries in the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa.” These countries include Iran, Syria and Pakistan.

The U.S. intelligence summary said that North Korea’s relationships with Iran and Syria remained strong, and Pyongyang “continues to seek new customers and reengage with previous customers.”

North Korea’s Syria connection is important because it evidently involved the covert supply of material and technology for making nuclear arms, as well as missiles. The nuclear reactor being built in Syria appeared to be modeled on one North Korea used to create its stockpile of plutonium for nuclear weapons.

The facility was destroyed by Israel in 2007. An investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded last June that it was “very likely”the destroyed building was a nuclear reactor that should have been declared by Syria.

The recent U.S. intelligence report to Congress also said that “entities” in China continued to sell technologies and components in the Middle East and South Asia that could support weapons of mass destruction and missile programs.

However, it drew a distinction between North Korea’s officially-sanctioned exports and those of China, which it said primarily involved private companies and individuals supplying missile-related items to multiple customers, among them Iran and Pakistan.

In 2010, an international panel of experts from China and Russia as well as Britain, the U.S., France, Japan and South Korea also concluded in a report to the U.N. Security Council that the North Korean state “continues to market and export its nuclear and ballistic (missile) technology to certain other states.”

The panel found that North Korea had established a “highly sophisticated international network” to acquire, market and sell arms and military equipment, and that arms exports had become one of the North’s main sources of foreign currency.

The panel said that several North Korean government agencies played key roles in arms and related exports, and that the most active were agencies linked to North Korea’s armed forces, its National Defense Commission and the ruling Workers’ Party.

North Korea’s readiness to sell both missile and nuclear-weapons technology is undermining international arms control treaties and arrangements. It may lead to sales to terrorists, as well as countries with nuclear weapons ambitions.

India and Pakistan developed nuclear missiles in the 1990s. Despite long-standing enmity, they are working out a mutual assurance arrangement. India and China are developing a similar understanding.

North Korea is much less predictable. It probably has at least six crude plutonium bombs and may be able to make more from highly enriched uranium.

Some Western officials and analysts believe North Korea will have nuclear-armed missiles within five years. This would be profoundly destabilizing for Asia. Among other things, it could prompt Japan and South Korea to seriously consider developing long-range strike weapons or even nuclear arms to counter North Korea.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.