Seoul, Mar 22: North Korea has hundreds of missiles within reach of South Korea and Japan but it does not have an operational missile that could strike the continental United States, a report released today (Mar 22, 2006) said.
North Korea has more than 800 ballistic missiles, some of which could deliver chemical or possibly biological weapons, the California-based Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) said in its report on North Korea's capabilities.
The report said missile exports are a major source of foreign exchange for the North Korean government.
''North Korea's earliest and most loyal customer for missiles and missile technology has been Iran,'' it said.
CNS says it is the largest non-governmental organisation in the United States devoted exclusively to research and training on non-proliferation issues.
Concern oover North Korea's missile programmes mounted when it launched two, and possibly three, short-range missiles earlier this month.
The commander of US forces in South Korea described the missiles in the test as representing a ''quantum leap forward'' from North Korea's previous weapons because they had greater reliability and precision.
The missiles were boosted by solid fuel rather than liquid fuel, making it easier to transport and deploy them, as well as increasing their accuracy, General B.B. Bell told the US House Armed Services Committee earlier this month.
Daniel Pinkston, director of the East Asia non-proliferation programme for CNS, said that from the perspective of a person charged with defending South Korea, the advancement in missile technology raised serious concern. ''With solid fuel, the missiles can be launched more quickly. The surprise element increases and they are much more difficult to defend against,'' Pinkston said by telephone.
Bell and other US officials have said the North is developing longer-range missiles that could be used to attack the continental United States.
''North Korea does not currently have an operational missile that can strike the United States,'' the report said.
US intelligence estimates have said a two-stage and yet-untested missile called Taepodong-2 could theoretically reach Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the continental United States, while a three-stage version could strike deep into US territory.
The report said that even if the Taepodong-2 is eventually deployed, the payloads it could carry would be militarily insignificant and the missile would be inaccurate.
''North Korea has not demonstrated the capability to make a nuclear weapon small enough to be part of a missile warhead or the capability to produce a re-entry vehicle,'' the report said.
North Korea has a variation of the Scud missile that could strike all of South Korea with conventional or chemical weapons, it said.
The solid-fuel missile tested in May, with a range of 100 km to 120 km (62-75 miles) could reach US bases in Seoul and quite possibly the future site for the bases, which are scheduled to be moved out of Seoul over the next few years.
North Korea has two missiles, and possibly a third, that can strike Japan, most notably the Rodong with a range of 1,000 km (625 miles).
''Given the missile's relative inaccuracy, the Rodong is more useful as a 'terror weapon' against population centres than as a significant military system -- unless it is armed with a nuclear warhead,'' the report said.