The reach of North Korea's long-range rockets is right now of highest concern to decision-makers in the United States and throughout the Far East. While the threats of Kim Jong Un to bomb American cities are almost certainly unfounded in reality, the destructive potential of the Strategic Missile Forces of the Korean People's Army should be taken seriously. But just how far can they reach and how much devastation can they cause?
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Western intelligence services know too little, but there is one way to assess this – comparing what is known of the Korean capabilities with the information there is on Iran's ballistic missiles. For over two decades the two countries have been cooperating on rocket development and sharing data gained in both successful and failed test-launches. Iran is watching closely as the escalation in the Korean peninsula enfolds. Whether or not a missile is launched this time, they have a lot to learn from these events – how the American administration treats a rogue nation equipped with a nuclear weapon.
In February 2010, Iran displayed to the word the "Simorgh," a satellite launching rocket. Experts immediately noticed that unlike most similar rockets, it has small guidance fins at the missile's base. The Simorgh has yet to be launched but three and a half months ago, the South Koreans fished out of the sea parts of the Unha-3 rocket their northern neighbors had launched two weeks earlier into space. It was the third Unha – the previous two had failed shortly after their launch, but this one had succeeded in placing a small satellite in orbit. The parts salvaged from the sea were equipped with fins, very similar to those on the Iranian Simorgh. It wasn't clear whether the fins were the reason for the successful launch but they served as yet another reminder of the close cooperation between the two countries in the development of advanced weapons systems.
While cooperation on missiles is evident to the eye – the Iranian Shahab and Korean Nodong medium-range missiles for example are very similar – the level of nuclear cooperation is much less clear. When it comes to missiles, Pyongyang is prepared to supply hardware, but would they conceivably transfer a bomb, or bombs to Iran? Or are they just advisors?
The fact that Iran has invested many billions of dollars over years in its nuclear program could indicate that there are limits to North Korean assistance. On the other hand, the two countries, aware that either may be attacked, may be trying to achieve "redundancy" in case one of them loses their nuclear installations. That could be the reason Iran is now prepared to stall and slow down its uranium enrichment, since the Korean ally has already proved its capability in three nuclear tests. The fact that North Korea was willing to build a nuclear reactor at Deir a-Zour in eastern Syria (destroyed in an alleged Israeli airstrike in late 2007), financed by Iran, based on its own Yangobon reactor, seems to prove that they are willing to go a long way in helping their Middle Eastern allies.
What does Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei learn when he closely follows events in the Far East? Half a year ago, in September 2012, he met Kim Yong Nam, president of North Korea's People's Assembly and essentially the number-two man in the ruling hierarchy, when he arrived in Tehran to sign a scientific cooperation treaty. "The Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea have shared enemies," Khamenei said. "Since arrogant powers cannot stand independent states."
The two nations indeed have a lot in common, aside from their deep hostility toward the U.S. Both hold rigid ideologies that grow stronger against the international sanctions and isolation (consider Juche, the Korean national belief in self-reliance and the Iranian radical interpretation of Shia Islam). Both have succeeded for years in maneuvering between the superpowers, taking advantage of Russian and China's hostility to American hegemony. Both maintain a balance of terror with their U.S.-backed neighbors – South Korea and Japan, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
And of course they both have serious nuclear aspirations. But their nuclear tactics are different. While North Korea trumpets its capabilities, with nuclear tests and threats against America, Iran still claims to be pursuing only civilian aims. On Friday, its representative will once again meet the P5+1 group of permanent UN Security Council members and Germany for yet another round of talks on the future of its uranium enrichment program. The international community will once again dangle relief from sanctions and other inducements in an attempt to get Iran to scale back enrichment. The Korean example is spurring Tehran to persevere. The Kim dynasty stuck the course, suffered sanctions and isolation but now has its bombs and can taunt and threaten the U.S. and remain unscathed.
How serious is the Korean threat? Over the last few days, the Western media has begun to belittle Pyongyang's capabilities. This attitude intensified following the footage of the 30-year-old Kim Jong Un conferring with his generals on the backdrop a clumsily photoshopped map showing imaginary trajectories of missiles targeting American cities. Added to that is the assumption that the North Koreans have yet to master the miniaturization of nuclear warheads so they can be mounted on ballistic missiles.
Tal Inbar, head of the space research center at the Fisher Institute in Herzliya who has been researching Korean-Iranian cooperation, does not share this skepticism. "Last year North Korea revealed a new missile, the KN-08 (which is reported to have a 4,000km range) in a parade," he says, "and all the experts dismissed it as a fake. Now we have seen the satellite launch and we know they have a long-range capability. We should also be very careful from any sweeping assessments that they cannot manufacture a small enough warhead. They have already proved advanced capabilities and this is available technology. The last nuclear test was of a reduced capacity, which also indicates they are now capable of building smaller bombs."
But even if the KN-08 is now in operational use (the North Koreans press new missiles into use even if they have not been tested) they still don't have the range to strike the continental U.S., not even Hawaii. But there is a closer American target. The island of Guam, just 3,300 kilometers east of Korea, is a forward base for U.S. strategic bombers and nuclear submarines, which could be launched against North Korea (and Iran). The Pentagon's announcement on Wednesday that it is planning to deploy a battery of the THAAD missile-defense to Guam in the next few days is proof that the U.S. military takes the Korean threats seriously.
Kim Jong Un may not be capable yet of bombing Los Angeles, but just being able to hit America's permanent aircraft carrier in the western Pacific gives him stature in the region. Ali Khamenei, who also sees around him American bases and outposts – especially Israel, which was once described by the late Defense Secretary Alexander Haig as "the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk" – has taken note.
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