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Levi: North Korea Seeks World Attention with Missile Tests

Interviewee: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
July 5, 2006

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Michael A. Levi, a CFR expert on weapons technology, says North Korea's missile tests were an effort not only to test these missiles, but to gain a measure of world attention, particularly from the United States, with which North Korea "has a great desire for recognition." He says North Korea has always wanted direct, rather than multilateral, talks with the United States, and "perhaps by being able to demonstrate a long-range missile threat to the United States, it thought it could draw the United States into such bilateral negotiations."

Levi warns, however, that the missile tests for the moment are not as dangerous as North Korea's nuclear program: "North Korea is steadily accumulating plutonium for nuclear weapons, some of which may have already been incorporated into nuclear weapons. Missiles are certainly a multiplier on that capability. But the nuclear program just by itself is the number one danger and where the most focus needs to be placed."

North Korea set off about seven missiles on July 4 (July 5 Korean time), six of which apparently were short or medium-range and one intercontinental missile, the Taepodong 2, which apparently failed in the first minute. What is the significance of these tests on the same day?

There are a couple of things to point to. The first is that North Korea tried to attract attention. All the focus lately on the nuclear front has been on Iran. The talks about North Korea's nuclear program are stalled. And North Korea probably wanted to bring attention back to it and to do so in a way that strengthened its negotiating stance by demonstrating a successful long-range missile capability, which of course it failed to do.

The second reason for the tests was probably to test these missiles. These are complicated programs, especially the potentially long-range missile and it is not something you do without testing. It is not something you have confidence in without testing. And North Korea may very well have wanted to see how well this missile worked. Probably the confluence of these two pressures led it to these tests.

Where did North Korea get its missile technology? Did North Korea get it originally from the Soviet Union?

North Korea originally got some of its missile technology from Russia and its Scud [tactical ballistic missile] technology from Egypt, but then what it did was reverse-engineer the Scud technology and show it could develop its own Scuds. It has since begun to adapt those missiles in different ways. The Nodung (short-range missile) led to the Taepodong 1 (intermediate range) and to the Taepodong 2 (intercontinental range). There are questions as to whether it has acquired other Russian technology in the meantime, particularly the SS-N6, which was designed as a submarine-launched missile but can be modified to be ground-launched.

What it does is bootstrap its way up. It started from basic technology and has modified it progressively. It has enlarged the fuel tanks, it has strapped multiple missiles together to create larger missiles, and a range of things like that.

There has been something like mild hysteria on the airwaves since the missile launchings were reported. Is this overblown? I see there is a Security Council meeting going on. Is this really a serious threat?

The concern is not so much the technological capability as North Korea's willingness to cross fairly well-defined "red lines." These are not just "red lines" set out by the United States. These are supported broadly and publicly by China in particular, which is North Korea's closest supporter. The concern is that if North Korea is willing to cross these lines, it would be willing to cross other lines. And so the message that North Korea should be restrained probably needs to be sent more strongly, and that's something that the Security Council discussion and potential action can do. The effort right now is to make sure the coalition [the other members of the Six-Party Talks] is not fractured. On the direct threat front, the missile threat obviously is going to be perceived as smaller today than it was a day ago because of the failure of the Taepodong 2 launch.

What’s probably irritated North Korea lately is the offer made by the United States and its Western partners to provide the same light-water reactors to Iran.

We still shouldn't take our eyes off the ball, which is not the missile program but the nuclear program. North Korea is steadily accumulating plutonium for nuclear weapons, some of which may have already been incorporated into nuclear weapons. Missiles are certainly a multiplier on that capability. But the nuclear program just by itself is the number one danger and where the most focus needs to be placed.

Last September there was an agreement in principle at the Six-Party Talks in Beijing which caused a certain amount of talk about a "breakthrough." At about the same time, the United States instituted a crackdown on certain banks to stop alleged North Korean counterfeiting of U.S. money. North Korea then pulled out of the talks and has not returned since. What's going on here?

It is hard to draw a causal link from the counterfeiting dispute to North Korean withdrawal from the talks. It may have been a direct consequence. It may have been a pretense for North Korea. North Korea obviously did not see a benefit from coming to the table under the conditions that it saw. The missile talks were in part an attempt to change the conditions. The original roadblock, in the aftermath of last fall's framework agreement, was the one of sequencing. Each side wanted the other side to fulfill all its commitments before it would start fulfilling its own, and that's a non-starter.

Could you sum up the substance of the agreement?

The agreement essentially called for North Korean steps to denuclearize, eventually resulting in complete denuclearization, and on the other side, the potential for nonaggression pledges and for outside assistance to North Korea. One thing it notably did not include was assistance in the nuclear energy sphere. The light-water reactors the United States in the previous agreements going back to 1994 had agreed to give North Korea under certain conditions, [were] not guaranteed. The accord only says the other parties "agreed to discuss at an appropriate time the subject of the provision of light-water reactors to the DPRK [North Korea]."

What's probably irritated North Korea lately is the offer made by the United States and its Western partners to provide the same light-water reactors to Iran.

Why is China upset at the missile tests?

China is upset for a few reasons. First, it does not want a hot crisis in North Korea. It doesn't need or want such a problem. North Korea is right on its border, and instability in North Korea can spill over quickly into China. The other reason is that this is a real loss of prestige for China which put itself out there, made public remonstrations to North Korea that it not test these missiles, and North Korea said, in effect, "We don't care."

What about South Korea?

Opinion will be mixed there. This is one place where the United States really needs to engage a whole variety of forces. We're going to see in the news photos of South Koreans burning North Korean flags, etc. But we shouldn't conclude that reflects the preponderance of public opinion. There is a widespread belief in South Korea that this is as much America's fault as North Korea's. Seeing how public opinion plays out in South Korea will be very interesting.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, the chief U.S. negotiator in these Six-Party Talks, is going back to Asia. What is his mission?

His mission is to maintain cohesion among American partners in the region. Chris Hill is widely respected across partisan lines as a skilled diplomat. Whether he is high enough level to really get this done right now is another question. A few weeks ago Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Europe to get agreement on Iran. Do we need her in Asia to be doing the same kind of thing right now? I think that is a question we need to answer. This is a crisis that has a deadline that comes very soon. We don't know what the next steps will be. If Hill has troubles getting the right partners aboard, perhaps Secretary Rice will have to visit the region also. We can be sure that she and the president are on the phones with counterparts in the region.

Why do you think North Korea has stayed away from the talks this long?

North Korea appears to think it can't get what it wants out of the talks. What does North Korea want? It wants security guarantees, economic assistance, more to prop up the regime. It did not see that forthcoming. It also wants recognition. North Korea has a great desire for recognition. It has always advocated bilateral talks with the United States, rather than multilateral talks, and perhaps by being able to demonstrate a long-range missile threat to the United States, it thought it could draw the United States into such bilateral negotiations. I think that is a severe miscalculation. Even if the tests would have succeeded, I don't think it would have brought the United States into bilateral negotiations. Certainly, with the failure of the tests, that's not going to happen.

Did the United States overreact by putting its missile defense forces on alert?

That was an overreaction. Had North Korea had a successful test, the probability of American interception would have been fairly low, and a missed interception would have been quite embarrassing. The United States has been let off the hook by the failure of the tests.

Tell us something about the Taepodong 2.

It's never been tested. This missile is defined as an intercontinental missile. The previous test had been of a Taepodong 1, which is an intermediary range missile, fired somewhat successfully over Japan. The first two of three stages worked. The third stage failed. In this latest test, the first stage failed, about halfway through its burn.

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