S.Korea warns against under-estimating N.Korea's missile threat

Agence France Presse January 12, 2000, Wednesday

North Korea's missile threat should not be under-estimated even if the communist state's launch facilities are deemed to be primitive, South Korean intelligence sources warned Wednesday.

The caution came a day after satellite photos of a North Korean launch site showed it consisted of a very basic launch pad off an unpaved country road, sparking debate over whether Pyongyang's threat had been overstated.

"South Korea's intelligence analysis is different from some US media reports which downplay the North's missile threats," said the source, who is well informed in North Korean affairs.

"We must not underevaluate the North's missile capability," the source said. "There is no exaggeration in such a position of ours," he said on condition of anonymity.

Intelligence officials here said the debate over the North's real missile capability might originate from "different preconceived notions" of the situation between Western states and the unique North Korea.

"When thinking of manufacturing trains, westerners may think of a large-scale factory churning out units one by one," another intelligence source said. "But it may not work that way in North Korea."

"Westerners with such preconceptions would surely be disappointed if they saw North Korea churning out train units in its small and shoddy iron foundries," he added. "But that's the way it is in the North."

North Korea stunned the United States when the communist country test-launched a medium-range multi-stage rocket in August 1998.

Following a breakthrough in negotiations in Berlin last year, the United States promised to ease some of its decades-old sanctions against North Korea which in return, declared a moratorium on further missile tests.

Before the landmark US-North Korean deal, Pyongyang hinted it was developing a longer-range missile which intelligence officials say could hit parts of the US mainland, including Alaska.

But some US critics said Pyongyang is just bluffing.

A former US diplomat in South Korea on Wednesday warned against excessive concerns over Stalinist North Korea's missile capability.

"We are not worried about North Korea with one or two small missiles that might hit the woods in Alaska," former US Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg, told Seoul's Yonhap News Agency. "It's not a massive capacity."

The Federation of American Scientists which had revealed the satellite images on its website said the facility lacked paved roads, propellant storage, and staff housing that would be needed to support an extensive test facility.

"The modest ambitions of the North Korean test program are clearly revealed by the scale and nature of the Nodong test facility, which is surely the antithesis to Cape Canaveral," it said.

The Pentagon said even if North Korea is far behind US technology, Pyongyang "devotes an enormous amount of money, energy and manpower" to the development of weapons of mass destructions.

"So I'm not sure that the fact that the launch facility is primitive makes the missiles any less threatening," said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.

Copyright 2000 Agence France Presse