THE final frontier is being assaulted by a couple of troubling pioneers. North Korean officials are boasting that they will soon launch a rocket that will lift a communications satellite into space. With this defiant spectacular, they seem to be cocking a snook at America, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia, who have been trying through six-party talks to curb North Korea’s equally vaunted nuclear-weapons efforts. Meanwhile, earlier in February, Iran—suspected of harbouring similar nuclear ambitions to North Korea’s, though it denies this—lifted its own small, supposedly home-made satellite into orbit too.
Both regimes trumpet their space prowess, and indeed such technological feats are not easy to achieve. But how do these “civilian” space efforts complement their terrestrial nuclear work? That is the question that deeply worries outsiders.
Quite simply, the technology needed to lift a satellite off the launch pad and shield it from damage on its way into space is indistinguishable from that needed to launch a far-flying nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.
… Kim Jong Il’s regime claims to have first embarked on its space adventures in 1998, when it launched a Taepodong-1 rocket over an alarmed Japan, across the Pacific towards a startled America. Mr Kim even issued a stamp to celebrate what was said to have been the successful launch of a satellite that had since been warbling patriotic tunes back from space. Oddly, no one else ever picked up its signal. A failed missile test, concluded America, after watching the rocket plop down in the Pacific.
Whether the satellite was a figment of Mr Kim’s imagination hardly matters. The latest promised test-launch will violate resolution 1718, which bans North Korea from all such activity. This was passed by the United Nations Security Council in 2006, unusually with China’s backing, after North Korea first tried (but failed) to launch a still more capable missile and then conducted what is thought to have been its first nuclear test. Its determination now to carry on launching regardless has led to speculation in some quarters that the missile, assuming it launches successfully, could even be shot down by the new ballistic-missile defences that Japan and America have been frantically cobbling together to protect Japan from North Korea’s missile threats.
…The North Korean media claim, not for the first time, that the two Koreas are at “the brink of war”, and that America is preparing a pre-emptive strike against the North.
Certainly Mr Kim is determined to look as threatening as possible. Writing in the Washington Post on February 19th, Selig Harrison, who is a frequent visitor to North Korea, said that the foreign-ministry and defence officials he talked to recently had left him with the impression that North Korea’s stash of plutonium (which is exhibit-A in the six-party talks, though there are lingering concerns that Mr Kim has also dabbled in enriched uranium, another possible bomb ingredient) had already been “weaponised”—that is, converted into missile warheads.
If that is the case, then North Korea’s “satellite” test will be doubly alarming. Although the 2006 nuclear test was thought to have fizzled, it may nonetheless have helped North Korea master a design for the sort of smaller warhead that a missile could carry.
Strutting its stuff
North Korea is evidently quite happy to brandish its bombs. It flounced out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty back in 2003 after evidence emerged that it had been cheating on an earlier denuclearisation deal with America. Iran, by contrast, claims to be an NPT member in good standing. It insists that it has no use for nuclear weapons, and that all its nuclear activities, including a uranium-enrichment effort that continues to expand in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and sanctions, are entirely peaceful in intent; the uranium, it says, is simply intended to fuel a future fleet of power stations.
Nothing if not brazen, it claims backhanded vindication in a controversial National Intelligence Estimate by America’s spooks, which concluded a little over a year ago that Iran had indeed had a bomb programme, but that it had stopped in 2003 when its formerly secret uranium activities came to light. But what that report failed to explain clearly was that Iran was continuing work quite openly on the two other necessary components of a weapons programme: first, uranium enrichment (with a bit of time and redirection of piping, low-enriched uranium can easily be turned into the highly enriched sort needed for a bomb) and efforts to produce plutonium; and second, the efforts under way for the development of a missile that could carry a nuclear warhead.