Media reports and anonymous US and South Korean officials suggest North Korea is preparing to test launch a long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile. A missile launch, or even observable preparations for such a launch, would be the next step in Pyongyang’s escalating efforts to pressure South Korea and the U.S. to soften their policies toward North Korea. Pyongyang’s increasingly bellicose campaign is directed primarily at forcing President Lee Myung-bak to abandon requirements for conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency in South Korean engagement with the North. Pyongyang is, however, also concurrently sending a signal to the Obama administration that North Korea will not adopt a more accommodating stance in nuclear negotiations despite the change in U.S. leadership.
North Korea may not intend to actually launch a missile, either because the media reports are erroneous or Pyongyang seeks to achieve its diplomatic objectives without escalating tension beyond a counter-productive level. North Korea would know activity at its missile test facility would be observed by imagery satellites and interpreted as launch preparations. Pyongyang would hope that concerns over escalating tensions arising from a missile launch would cause South Korea and the U.S. to weaken negotiating positions as the Bush administration did when North Korea threatened in late 2008 to reprocess plutonium.
If North Korea were to successfully launch a Taepo Dong missile, it would significantly alter the threat environment to the U.S. and its Asian allies. Pyongyang’s previous Taepo Dong missile launches in 1998 and 2006 failed and its nuclear test in 2006 was only partially successful. A successful launch of a missile theoretically capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear warhead would reverse perceptions of a diminishing North Korean military threat.