North Korea’s firing of seven missiles was the first real test of the new U.S. ground-based missile defense, even though the failure of the long-range Taepodong-2 seconds after launch prevented the Pentagon from responding with a U.S.-based interceptor, defense officials said yesterday.
The 9,000-mile-range Taepodong-2 failed after 42 seconds and several hundred miles of flight, but was detected by a military Defense Support Program satellite within seconds of its engines igniting at a launch pad at a facility called Taepodong on the northeastern coast.
But NBC News last night reported, citing U.S. intelligence officials, that North Korea was not backing down and appears to be preparing another Taepodong-2 launch, having another missile in the last stages of assembly.
President Bush told reporters yesterday the long-range missile “tumbled into the sea” during the failure.
The Taepodong-2 was the most important of the seven missiles, including one short-range missile that the Japanese and South Korean militaries say was launched yesterday. U.S. officials say the series of launches was part of a show of force by the reclusive communist state.
The launch failure shows that the North Koreans will need to continue development work, the officials said. It is not known how many additional Taepodong-2s North Korea has built.
The missile volley will likely lead Japan’s government to speed up development of sea-based missile defenses, the officials said.
Six shorter-range missiles were fired, including at least two Scud-C type missiles and two 620-mile range Nodongs. All were fired from a base in Kittaeryong, located along the southern part of North Korea’s east coast. North Korea makes two versions of the Soviet-design Scud that have ranges of between 300 and 500 miles, in addition to Nodong and Taepodong missiles.
The South Korean defense minister also has warned that further tests were possible, according to South Korean news reports today.
“There is a possibility that North Korea will fire additional missiles,” the Yonhap news agency quoted Yoon Kwang-ung as telling lawmakers, although South Korean newspapers centered their speculation on the shorter-range weapons.
The missiles were tracked and landed in the northern part of the East Sea/Sea of Japan, with one of the missiles landing within 100 miles of the Russian port city of Nakhodka, defense officials said.
The U.S. Northern Command, the military unit in charge of U.S. missile defenses, said in a statement that all seven missiles were detected and tracked “immediately” after launch Tuesday and yesterday.
The command’s troops are continuing to monitor North Korea for additional missile firings, using a worldwide network of ground-based, sea-based and space sensors.
“While Ground-based Midcourse Defense System interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., were operational during the flight, top officials from the command were able to determine quickly that the launch posed no threat to the United States or its territories,” the statement said.
Defense officials said the Taepodong-2 failure after less than a minute meant that the U.S. interceptors were not loaded with what is called a “weapons task plan” that is part of the guidance system needed for the interceptor to slam into the missile’s re-entry vehicle during its flight through space.
The task plan includes tracking and speed data that tells the interceptor it will be traveling to a specific area of space and that it will get additional update information one or two times during its 20-minute flight.
North Korea’s motivations are not clear to U.S. intelligence and policy officials. However, the most likely explanation is that North Korea is seeking to win concessions from the United States, including a lifting of recent economic sanctions that have made it harder for the Pyongyang regime to raise hard currency through Banco Delta Asia. The Macao-based bank was found to be a main conduit for North Korean government counterfeiting and money-laundering of profits from drug trafficking.
“It is a major strategic miscalculation,” said one administration official. The official said the motivations for the tests appear aimed at winning concessions from the U.S. in the six-party nuclear talks and other issues, such as U.S. defenses against illegal North Korean government activities around the world.
“They are clearly trying to grab the world’s attention,” said a defense official.
Officials also said the launches may have been a response to the Treasury Department’s imposition of sanctions May 8 that are designed to prevent North Korea from making money from American and U.S.-based companies that purchase North Korean flag registry for commercial ships.
The sanctions overturned the Clinton administration’s 1999 easing of sanctions in a bid at inducing North Korea not to conduct further missile tests, after a long-range Taepodong-1 was fired in August 1998.
Russia’s military chief of staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, told reporters in Chita, Russia, that, contrary to other nations’ statements, a total of 10 North Korean missiles were launched and that Russian tracking systems monitored the launches, the Interfax-AVN news service reported.