The shocking rumor surfaced a few years back: A warhead from a North Korean ballistic missile had been found in the Alaskan tundra.
It made a few headlines before the U.S. Missile Defense Agency dismissed the story as a complete fabrication.
Nevertheless, the report still bounces around the Internet, a favorite of conservative blog sites. Its staying power illustrates the extent of the confusion about the North Korean weapons program.
The series of missile tests North Korea conducted this week is unlikely to ease the confusion, and might even add to it.
Even among the experts, there is no consensus on how much Americans need to worry about North Korea.
In one camp, alarmists say it is only a matter of time before the continental United States is within reach of North Korean missiles, perhaps even armed with nuclear warheads. Others scoff at the notion that the dysfunctional communist country -- which admittedly can barely manufacture a working bicycle -- could pose a credible military threat to the United States.
“Elvis found at South Pole,” one skeptic wrote dismissively on the Seoul-based Korea Times’ website, where the reported find was announced in a March 2003 article headlined “NK Missile Warhead Found in Alaska.”
The skeptics point to the embarrassing failure of the long-range Taepodong 2 missile in this week’s tests. The first booster stage of the Taepodong exploded 42 seconds after takeoff.
In addition, at least two of the North Korean missiles veered off course and landed in Russian territorial waters near the far eastern town of Nakhodka. The mistake infuriated one of Pyongyang’s last friends.
North Korea “has completely discredited itself in the eyes of the world public,” Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow bureau of the Washington-based Center for Defense Information, told a Russian radio station.
Then again, the North Koreans showed that for all their shortcomings in guidance systems and technology, they have guts.
Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., a leading American expert on the North Korean military, says the failure of the Taepodong should not cause anyone to breathe much easier.
“The fact that they launched so many missiles at once shows that they have the nerves and, at least in their short-range and medium-range missiles, operational readiness and capability,” Bermudez said.
As for the failure of the Taepodong, he noted, “We used to see the Soviets have numerous failures of their ballistic-missile program, but nobody said their program was less of a threat.”
The North Koreans have been trying to develop a multistage missile capable of reaching the United States since at least the early 1990s.
The longest actual flight of a North Korean missile was in 1998, when the earlier version of the Taepodong traveled 800 miles -- just enough to get it over the main island of Japan and into the Pacific. The missile had a third stage, which was meant to launch a small satellite, but the effort failed.
Debris was strewn thousands of miles from the launch site, leading to speculation that the range was longer than it actually was.
“People mishmash all these numbers together and get confused,” Bermudez said.
The missile tested this week is a souped-up version of the 1998 missile. Like the Taepodong 1, it is a three-stage rocket, but it used four engines in its first stage, a setup that was supposed to give it additional thrust. Experts believe that something in the design of the multiple engines might have led to the failure.
Wildly skewed estimates of the missile’s range have appeared recently in the media, with some experts suggesting a range of as much as 6,000 miles -- which would mean the projectile could reach Los Angeles.
The technical dispute predictably tends to be colored by political views.
Analysts in South Korea often put the range at no more than 2,400 miles, which, as far as U.S. interests are concerned, means the missile could reach Guam or possibly the sparsely inhabited western tip of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
“I think many of us in South Korea believe that the Bush administration had a tendency to exaggerate the military significance of this missile for its own purposes, largely to propel spending for missile defense,” said Lee Chol-ki, a North Korea specialist at Seoul’s Dongguk University.
Intelligence analysts will pore over technical data gathered this week by infrared sensors to estimate the weight, thrust and trajectory of the Taepodong 2. But it is not easy to extrapolate hard facts from a test that failed. And this launch -- like that in 1998 -- was technically intended to put a satellite into orbit and not to achieve the missile’s maximum range, making it more difficult to determine whether under other circumstances it could have reached the United States.
And as David Albright, a former U.N. arms inspector, put it: “With a missile, it is one of those things where you really won’t know how far it can go until they launch it.”
Compounding the mystery, North Korea has long been considered a black hole as far as intelligence is concerned. Donald Gregg, a former CIA station chief in Seoul who now heads the New York-based Korea Society, has called North Korea the “longest-running intelligence failure” in the history of U.S. espionage.
Gary Samore, a former National Security Council aide and a nonproliferation expert, says that apart from satellites and other technical surveillance measures, there is little intelligence about North Korea’s weapons program.
“It is one of our weakest areas in terms of intelligence,” Samore said. “North Korea is a very closed country.”
Although the experts disagree on the range of North Korea’s missiles, most believe that Pyongyang does not have viable nuclear warheads. The reclusive nation is believed to have the fissile material for the weapons, but it is not believed to have the technology to mount a warhead on a missile.
“Maybe they can reach the United States with a missile. It would have huge propaganda value for the North Koreans and satisfy an emotional need,” Bermudez said. “But I doubt they could do it with a real warhead.”
As for a missile reaching Alaska?
The story about the warhead being found in Alaska first emerged in a report published by the South Korean National Assembly.
Kim Hak-won, an assemblyman who was the lead author of the report, said he had heard about the purported Alaskan discovery from Taro Nakayama, a former Japanese foreign minister.
Contacted recently, both men said they stood by the story. Nakayama said in an e-mail that he had heard about it from a State Department official he met during a trip to Washington a few months after North Korea’s 1998 missile launch.
Kim said the Alaskan report showed that “clearly we have underestimated North Korea’s missile capabilities.”
Rick Lehner, a spokesman for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said the story had been investigated and discounted.
“I don’t know how close it came to Alaska,” he said, “but it was very far away.”
Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.