The Times (London) January 12, 2000, Wednesday

Spy pictures show Korea's empty threat

Michael Evans, defence editor

A privately launched spy satellite has revealed what American Intelligence has kept secret for years - that North Korea's only operational missile test centre is a primitive facility consisting of a "shed, a dirt road, a launch pad and a rice paddy".

North Korea's answer to the Kennedy Space Centre is so basic, according to the high resolution photographs taken of the Nodong facility, that missile experts in the United States dismissed Washington's fears that the rogue nation now posed a serious threat to America's security.

The pictures of the secret North Korean missile site on the east coast of the country were taken by Space Imaging Inc, a company in Colorado. The firm built the world's first private spy satellite and markets its photographs.

America's highly secretive National Reconnaissance Office, which controls US intelligence spy satellite photography, has taken numerous pictures of the Nodong base but has never released the results. Now, with a private company able to take the same pictures, the North Korean missile base can be seen to lack some of the main requirements for a comprehensive testing facility, such as proper roads, storage for propellant and accommodation for scientists and engineers. The pictures were published yesterday in The New York Times.

John Pike, director of the Federation of American Scientists, a private organisation in Washington that bought the pictures from the space company in Denver, Colorado, said: "These photographs make a nonsense of American foreign policy, which has been dominated in recent years by the perceived ballistic missile threat from North Korea.

"All you can see is a shed, a dirt road, a launch pad and rice paddy. They don't seem to have any permanent tracking facility or any accommodation for launch crews. It's a temporary encampment from where you could launch the odd missile but not carry out a real test programme." Mr Pike added that the US carried out "dozens" of missile tests before deciding whether a weapon system was reliable. Yet US foreign policy was based on the fear that North Korea might attack American territory.

He said that Washington was prepared to tear up the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to spend billions of dollars on building a defence system to counter the North Korean threat, yet the Nodong site, he claimed, could not support a test programme for the three types of Taepodong missiles being developed.

However, senior Western military sources said that, although the Nodong site might be primitive, North Korea still had the technology to launch ballistic missiles. "They can still go bang," one source said.

Frank Gaffney, a former senior Pentagon official and now director of the Centre for Security Policy, a private research body in Washington, told The New York Times: "I'd be surprised if the base were anything but modest - North Korea can't feed its own people - but if crude will do, then we're fools to ignore capabilities that have the potential to do us grave harm."

Paul Beaver, of Jane's Information Group, said it was possible that there were underground facilities at the Nodong site and that the North Koreans were also "good at camouflage", but he was concerned whether all the hype by Washington about the missile threat posed by the North Koreans might be a way of persuading Japan to help to fund the proposed defence system.

The Nodong launch facility first became an issue of concern for Washington in the 1990s. A single test flight of the Nodong 1 missile was carried out in May 1993. Five years later the 1,000-mile range Taepodong 1 was launched in what was claimed to be an attempt to orbit a small satellite. Preparations began for the launch of a longer range Taepodong 2 last year, but North Korea agreed to end testing in exchange for aid. Another version is under development.

Copyright 2000 Times Newspapers Limited