The Associated Press is reporting that North Korea fired a couple of anti-ship missiles from its western coast early today. It represents Pyongyang’s latest temper-tantrum, resulting from (pick at least one): (a) the current impasse over nuclear negotiations; (b) delays in accessing $25 million from Macau bank accounts apparently used by senior regime officials; (c) anger over South Korea’s recent commissioning of its first Aegis-equipped naval vessels: (d) Kim Jong-il was having a bad day, or (e) all the above.

In fairness, we should note that U.S. and South Korean officials told the AP that such tests are fairly routine. North Korea has a sizable inventory of anti-ship missiles, and conducts periodic readiness drills and test launches to assess their readiness. And, while much of North Korea’s military conducts its training in the fall and winter months (when off-road mobility is optimum), Kim Jong-il’s navy is most active in the spring and summer, when sea conditions are at their best.

Today’s test launch apparently involved two missiles, fired from a known training site on the Yellow Sea coast. The missiles–believed to have a range of less than 62 nautical miles–fell into North Korean coastal waters a few minutes after launch. The reported range of the weapon suggests that it might be a domestically-produced KN-01, Pyongyang’s version of the Russian “Styx” anti-ship missile, first introduced almost 45 years ago. A similar test involving anti-ship missiles was conducted two weeks ago, along North Korea’s eastern coast.

While Kim Il-Jong’s regime can always justify a provocative military move, the recent launch of South Korea’s first Aegis-equipped destroyer is probably a key motivation for the latest rounds of North Korean missile tests. While much is made of the Aegis system’s ability to engage air (and, in some cases, ballistic missile) targets at long range, it also has a tremendous surface search and engagement capability, something that would be useful in detecting–and interdicting–the seaborne infiltration of DPRK SOF teams into the South during a renewed Korean conflict. Last month’s anti-ship missile test by North Korea came only one day after the ROK Navy launched its new Aegis destroyer–hardly a coincidence.

While the missile tests are supposed to remind Seoul that North Korea can threaten ROK naval vessels, truth is, the DPRK doesn’t have an answer for the Aegis system. It’s powerful radar can track and identify North Korean vessels long before they can spot the ROK ship. The Harpoon missiles carried on the new South Korean destroyer have a longer range than ship or land-based North Korean models, and they’re far better at discriminating targets in clutter. Additionally, the South Korea Aegis destroyer also has an impressive self-defense suite, providing effective protection against DPRK anti-ship systems.

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It’s another reminder of the wide technological gap that has opened between the militaries of North and South Korea over the past 20 years. While the ROK military can afford the latest western technology, the DPRK still has large numbers of fighters, air defense systems, ships and tanks that are 30-40 years old–obsolete by western standards. Pyongyang’s growing reliance on ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction reflect (in part) a military that has long lost qualitative parity with its rivals.

Obviously, that doesn’t dismiss the North Korean threat. But the continued modernization of South Korea forces underscores the quandary facing Kim Jong-il. With a bankrupt economy, he cannot afford high-tech conventional systems, so he’s putting his eggs in the baskets that get world attention–long range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, his air force and navy will stagger along with equipment that is decidedly inferior to that of the U.S. and South Korea, with little hope for improvement. Today’s missile test may have gained Pyongyang some saber-rattling headlines, but in essence, it was a puny response to a technologically-advanced rival.

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