Alaskans have special interest in North Korea standoff

Posted: Friday, January 10, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- While the nuclear standoff between the United States and North Korea galvanizes international attention, Alaskans may be forgiven for taking a somewhat parochial interest.

Alaska's special concern has to do with the range of the Taepodong-2 missile believed to be under development by the North Korean government. The most common U.S. and South Korean military estimates of the two-stage missile's maximum range is about 6,000 kilometers -- 3,700 miles -- the distance from Pyongyang to Anchorage.

That estimate, coupled with North Korea's possession of weapons of mass destruction, raises the stakes for Alaska. North Korea has chemical and biological weapons and possibly one or two nuclear devices, according to current press accounts.

''When North Korea fired that one test missile into the North Pacific, it was heading in our direction,'' said Chris Nelson, the state's missile defense coordinator. ''There's no question that we would be the first U.S. territory that North Korea could hit.''

A second reason for Alaskans to watch North Korean developments closely, Nelson said, is that troops based here would likely be sent to support and reinforce troops in South Korea if war broke out.

No one has suggested that North Korea could reach Alaska soil with a missile at this point. U.S. military planners say the Taepodong-2 could be ready, however, as soon as 2005. North Korea has had a self-imposed missile-testing moratorium for several years, but it expires this year. The country has said it is reconsidering that ban.

Alaska would not likely be the target of choice, even if North Korea develops its Taepodong-2 missile. Analysts say the more likely strike-back options would be short-range missile salvos at South Korea -- where 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed -- or Japan.

The Bush administration is seeking ways to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons development program, which the Pyongyang government admitted last October was continuing covertly despite previous agreements with the United States.

The missile arsenal is a prime factor distinguishing North Korea from Iraq and limiting the Bush administration's military options on the Korean peninsula.

North Korea claims it is developing such weapons to hold the United States at bay -- that is, to make sure any U.S. assault on North Korea would have deadly consequences.

''North Korea likely perceives its TD-2 ballistic missile capability primarily as a tool for deterrence and political coercion,'' the Defense Intelligence Agency said in a report released by Congress in October. ''During a conflict, the North also could attempt to strike U.S. and U.S. interests with ballistic missiles, if North Korea's leadership were attacked directly or was facing imminent destruction.''

North Korea shocked military experts in August 1998 when it fired a three-stage Taepodong-1 rocket over Japanese airspace in what it said was an effort to launch a satellite. Negotiators pressed in the following year for the missile test moratorium.

But last fall, Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said development of the Taepodong-2 has continued.

Estimates of the potential range of the Taepodong-2 vary. Some scientists think 2,500 miles is a reasonable guess, at least for a missile carrying a heavy nuclear payload. An unclassified summary of the U.S. Intelligence Estimate released one year ago said the range could be as high as 6,000 miles -- enough to reach the West Coast of the United States -- and for a three-stage version with a light payload, 9,000 miles.

Estimates of the Taepodong-2's reach have figured into U.S. debates over national missile defense.

North Korea's potential for striking Alaska was raised in a 1998 report to Congress, which cited the threat as a reason for moving forward with a missile defense system.

Alaska-based interceptors would be well-positioned to defend against a Taepodong flung toward Anchorage, military officials say.

Some skeptical analysts argue the threat to the United States has been inflated. Even so, Alaskans may feel a chill when they read conclusions like the one reached by Siegel, assessing the ''minimal'' short-term North Korean risk in a 2001 paper: ''In order to pose even a minimal threat,'' Siegel wrote, ''a government must be willing to risk national annihilation in order to deliver a few low-yield nuclear warheads to U.S. cities, killing perhaps a few tens of thousands of civilians.''

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