02 May 2005

Kim Jong Il’s Seersucker Suit

North Korea tested a Seersucker anti-ship missile from a base north of Hamhung May 1 at the conclusion of its annual winter military exercises. The seersucker is a variation of the Silkworm missile, a seven and a half meter subsonic anti-ship missile that serves as part of North Korea’s coastal defense system. North Korea tested at least four such missiles in 2003 – all timed for maximum political impact.

This one, too, appears timed for politics more than for security reasons. First of all, the Seersucker isn’t exactly what one calls a state-of-the-art cruise missile – it is large, slow and extremely vulnerable to ship-based countermeasures. That said, it was a Seersucker missile that landed near a U.S. marine base in Kuwait in 2003 at the start of the Iraq war – it appears it was flying below the active radar level of the Patriot Pac-3 anti-missile batteries.

North Korea’s May Day missile test comes one day before the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). North Korea withdrew from the NPT in January 2003 after just one day warning – claiming the other 89 days necessary to warn before withdrawal took place years earlier when Pyongyang nearly withdrew, but changed its mind after 89 days.

The missile test initially sent ripples throughout Northeast Asia, as Washington has been warning that a North Korean ballistic missile test could be coming, soon. Washington has also been warning of a potential North Korean nuclear test, and cautioning that Pyongyang may have the technical capability to marry a nuke to a missile. That would mark a substantial improvement in the North’s nuclear capability, as it currently lacks the ability to make nuclear devices small enough to be carried by its ballistic missiles.

North Korea’s shore-to-ship missile test ranks far below a ballistic missile test in terms of both military and political impact. It is a reminder that Pyongyang is still there, and that it has other, more significant missiles in reserve. But North Korea has always been cautious about testing its missiles, as it presents a chance for revealing too much about the advancement (or lack thereof) of the missile program, and risks spectacular failure. Better to let buyers test North Korean missiles – just watch the Pakistani and Iranian tests for example – and know that the technology is functional.

But Pyongyang is likely preparing a ballistic missile test – just not quite yet. Wait for the autumn, when there are plenty of politically significant times for a test. And watch the skies – maybe Pyongyang will do a better job of getting its satellite into orbit this time and all the world will be graced with the Song of the Dear Leader broadcast 24 hours a day for three or four days as the sputnik clone orbits the earth.

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