The day before the inauguration of South Korea's new president last month, neighboring North Korea fired a short-range missile into the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, a reminder that the isolated state places great importance on its missile program.
North Korea has not tested a ballistic missile since it launched a three-stage Taep'o-dong-1 rocket over Japan in 1998. But as tensions between Pyongyang and the outside world grow by the day, there is concern that the country might be preparing to test an even more powerful rocket, which could potentially reach the continental United States.
The 1998 test failed to put a satellite into orbit, but it did succeed in sending ripples of fear throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The launch demonstrated to the world how the North's missile program had progressed, and revealed that Pyongyang had a weapon that could strike at any part of Japanese territory. The revelation also showed how greatly the secretive nation's missile program had been underestimated.
Then came the statement by U.S. officials last October, that North Korean officials had admitted they were working on a program that could produce nuclear warheads. The thought of the erratic communist state possessing both nuclear weapons and a missile delivery system has become a source of deep concern around the world.
Derek Mitchell is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They have missiles that can clearly reach South Korea," he said. "They have Scud missiles and No-dong missiles that can reach Japan and they are testing and developing missiles that can further reach into Asia and potentially to the West Coast of the United States or Hawaii. So just their capabilities on the purely military side, their missile development, is a great concern to us and they are developing the capability not only to launch conventional weapons on these missiles but also weapons of mass destruction."
Analyst Kim Tae-woo of the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, says that in addition to ballistic missiles, the North is also developing cruise missiles, such as the one it test fired in late February. South Korea's Defense Ministry says that missile was a new type, and appeared to have exploded in mid-air because of defects. But Mr. Kim says the launch is worrying. "If North Korea is successful in developing cruise missiles, that means another renovation [improvement] in their missile capability," he explained. "Cruise missiles have an excellent infiltration capability, and excellent survivability. So it can pose a new threat to South Korea and to South Korea-U.S. combined forces here."
The North's missile development program started in the 1970s and has been a national priority ever since, receiving significant resources, despite the grinding poverty that affects most of the country's population.
The late leader Kim Il Sung, father of current ruler Kim Jong Il, established a military academy where some of the country's best scientists could develop missiles and other weapons. Pyongyang's relations with fellow communist nations played a crucial role in the missile program.
The Soviet Union provided aid in the late 1960s in the form of missiles, artillery rockets, and other equipment. The Soviets also trained the North's army in how to assemble, test, and maintain the gear, providing a foundation for it to produce the weapons on its own.
In the early 1970s, China and North Korea signed a military pact covering the acquisition and development of missiles and other weapons systems, and North Korean missile specialists were sent to China for training.
In later years, the Soviet Union and China pulled away from these arrangements, forcing Pyongyang to proceed with missile development on its own. North Korea subsequently joined forces with Egypt, Iran, and Syria, sharing technology as well as missile sales.
The State Department says North Korea earned nearly $1 billion from such sales during the past decade. Mr. Mitchell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that makes it the world's foremost missile exporter. "Syria, Libya, you name a nasty regime in the world, North Korea has provided technology," he said. "So it is actually that the missile situation is not simply a military concern from North Korea but also a proliferation concern internationally."
U.S. intelligence sources say the North has set up decoys, moved launch sites and disguised laboratories to keep the missile program's progress a secret. Much about the program remains unknown, but the fact that it receives high priority automatically makes it a key concern for the United States, Japan, South Korea, and other nations.
In 1999, Pyongyang pledged to suspend tests of ballistic missiles until at least 2003, helping reduce tensions on the Korean Peninsula and in the region in general. Now, the Stalinist state has asserted its right to develop and test missiles, from short-range to intercontinental, another cause of worry for a world already nervous over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.