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N. Korean Short-Range Missile Threat Overlooked


The launch of North Korea's long-range missile grabbed most of the headlines in the United States, but North Korea also tested at least six shorter range missiles. Many analysts say those missiles should not be dismissed lightly.

NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.


In the days and weeks leading up to the July 4th test launches, the focus was on the Taepodong-2 long-range missile and the fear that it could maybe reach Alaska. Much less attention was given to the shorter range missiles.

Anthony Cordesman, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the world community should be more worried about North Korea's shorter range missiles than the longer range ones.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies): Because we have all of two tests of a large booster, both of which were dismal failures. But what we have seen is the systematic development of missiles that can attack some of the most critical allies and critical aspects of the global economy.

NORTHAM: Cordesman says North Korea has had the shorter-range systems in its inventory for a long time. They're mature systems that are tested often. They're not wholly sophisticated and not always accurate, but have the capability to target parts of South Korea and Japan. Cordesman says at the moment the shorter-range weapons have more potential to wreak havoc than North Korea's long-range missiles.

Mr. CORDESMAN: A strategic weapon that attacked Japan would have far more impact on the American economy than a weapon that had virtually obliterated Alaska. There's no question that we're talking about fellow Americans when we talk about Alaska. But when you talk about strategic importance, the importance of Japan and South Korea to the American economy as a whole is vastly greater than that of Alaska or any small portion of the Pacific Northwest.

NORTHAM: Cordesman says an attack on South Korea or Japan by North Korea could affect global trade and stock markets in all the economic powerhouses of Asia and America. It undoubtedly would trigger a military response as well, says Jonathan Pollack, a professor of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Naval War College.

Professor JONATHAN POLLACK (Asian and Pacific Studies, Naval War College): It is inconceivable to me that if Japan were hit by a North Korean ballistic missile, unless it was something that was just a horrific accident that was clarified immediately, that there would be no response. I have no doubt about that. We are honor bound by treaty to defend Japan. For the United States not to respond would be the most profound erosion of what those security commitments would be to Japan.

NORTHAM: And a conflict would likely involve most players in the region, says Dr. Jim Walsh, an international security expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Dr. JIM WALSH (International Security, MIT): South Koreans would probably be dragged along. The Chinese would be upset. They don't want a war on their border, and they would feel compelled to support their North Korean friends and allies. You know, hopefully cooler heads would prevail, but it could lead to real conflict, multi-party conflict.

NORTHAM: Walsh says for now the short-range missile tests by North Korea are more important politically than militarily, causing consternation amongst Asian nations. Walsh says earlier test launches consolidated Japan's interest in a missile defense system, and, Walsh says, just before Tuesday's launch, Japan decided to elevate its defense agency to a cabinet level post.

Dr. WALSH: In general, you see Japan building a more capable defense and they're able to devote a lot of resources to defense purchases, and then that has been further exacerbated or augmented by North Korean actions, which have made people fearful.

NORTHAM: Some of that fear is generated by the unknown, whether North Korea has the capability to fit the short-range missiles with nuclear or chemical warheads, and whether the country would use them.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.