Reining in Pyongyang’s Missile Plans

An excessively punitive response will do little to halt North Korea’s missile programs. So what’s the alternative?

North Korea is preparing to launch a satellite in the coming days to coincide with the 100th birthday of its founder Kim Il-sung. Its satellite carrying rocket is based on a long-range missile, and world leaders have urged Pyongyang to scrap the launch, stating that it violates U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, which demands that Pyongyang “not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology.”

But the reality is that an excessively punitive response will do little to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Instead, it could well be followed by a familiar cycle of North Korean provocations and more international sanctions. This would disrupt the prospects for North Korean restraint on three vital nuclear issues – refraining from further nuclear tests so that it doesn’t develop a compact missile-deliverable nuclear warhead; freezing its uranium enrichment and plutonium production so that its nuclear inventory is limited to less than ten nuclear weapons; and allowing international inspections to monitor such a freeze.

Yet it’s important to maintain these critical restraints, while devising diplomatic approaches for curbing North Korea’s missile activities.

To begin with, the long-range missile threat from North Korea is small. Pyongyang has still not perfected a long-range rocket, because its prior launches of this system failed (in 2006) or had mixed results (in 2009). Even if its upcoming launch is successful, North Korea would require at least one additional flight test to have any confidence in this system. It will therefore not acquire a huge long-range missile arsenal over the next decade. In addition, North Korea’s long-range rocket is unwieldy and uses liquid-propulsion that takes time to refuel – it’s therefore not the most appropriate for quick-launch military operations. Further, because it hasn’t yet tested a compact missile-deliverable warhead, North Korea may not even have such warheads to place on its long-range rockets. And even if it develops such a warhead, it presently only has enough fissile material for less than ten nuclear devices. It would be most likely to deploy these on its short-range and medium-range missiles that can target South Korea and Japan, rather than on any long-range rocket that’s capable of reaching the United States.

Simply put, the North Korean long-range missile threat will remain limited for the next decade. In the meantime, a political normalization process would provide space for a five-part missile deal similar to one that was nearly concluded in 2000.

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First, as a confidence-building measure, North Korea could agree to a comprehensive moratorium on all missile and rocket launches.

Second, North Korea could scrap its long-range rocket program, with other states launching its satellites. Pyongyang could verifiably halt the production of long-range rockets for five years and other states could launch one or two North Korean satellites during this period. Another option is for Pyongyang to restrict itself to building just one satellite-launching rocket every two to three years. At the time of the launch, international inspectors would verify that this isn’t a new rocket, but instead is the same unwieldy liquid-fuel rocket that is ill-suited for military operations.

Third, in exchange for economic offsets, North Korea could renounce missile technology exports. This will curb North Korea’s dangerous missile transfers to Iran. Pyongyang could also renounce missile imports, thus ensuring that it doesn’t acquire solid-fuel technology from Tehran. This is significant because while North Korea has built hundreds of liquid-fuel medium-range missiles, it hasn’t built similar solid-fuel missiles that are superior for military missions.

Fourth, North Korea could declare its past missile transfers in a manner similar to its 2008 plutonium production declaration, when it turned over 19,000 pages of documents on the Yongbyon reactor and related facilities. This would enable the United States to better assess the scope of Iran’s long-range missile projects, and to tailor missile defense responses to them accordingly. This, in turn, would help reduce U.S.-Russia friction over missile defense.

Fifth, as the missile dialogue advances, North Korea would be more willing to curb its medium-range missile programs, just as it was prepared to do in 2000.

In the end, there are many payoffs from not overreacting to, but instead looking beyond, North Korea’s upcoming rocket launch. During this time, international diplomacy can begin the process of capping and gradually rolling back the most critical aspects of these programs.

Dinshaw Mistry is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of ‘Containing Missile Proliferation,’ a comprehensive study of international efforts to curb emerging missile programs.