Missiles are pivotal to North Korea's military strategy says Shorenstein APARC's Daniel Sneider

North Korea's response to the United Nations resolution demanding that it suspend its ballistic missile program and resume a moratorium on launches was typically belligerent. But like the multiple launch of seven missiles earlier this month, the North Korean vow to continue to fire off its missiles should not be dismissed as mere political theater.

The missile tests were neither a gesture of defiance nor a desperate bid for negotiations. Nor can they be dismissed as the impulsive act of an irrational leader. It was, as Pyongyang itself so succinctly put it, a "military exercise."

The launches are only the latest evidence of a decadeslong effort by Pyongyang to redress the military balance in its favor. For North Korea, missiles are an attempt to compensate for weakness. The communist state has a large but technologically backward army, lacking the air power to compete with the United States and its South Korean ally. Rockets give it the firepower to back an assault on the South and to hold U.S. forces in Japan, the rear base for Korea, at bay.

The late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung set this goal as far back as 1965 when he established an academy to develop missiles and other modern weaponry.

"If war breaks out, the U.S. and Japan will also be involved," he said. "In order to prevent their involvement, we have to be able to produce rockets which fly as far as Japan."

I encountered one crucial tentacle of Kim's program some 14 years ago, in late October of 1992.

A group of 64 Russian rocket scientists, accompanied by their wives and children, were stopped just as they were about to board a flight to North Korea. The scientists were employees of a super-secret facility in the Urals, the V.P. Makeyev Design Bureau, responsible for the development of the Soviet Union's submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

As the bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor, I pieced the story together later from Russian press accounts and interviews with the scientists and others. A middleman with apparent official backing had offered the bureau, starving for orders and left adrift by the sudden end of the Cold War, work in North Korea.

Scientists who were making the equivalent of $15 a month jumped at offers of up to $4,000 a month to help a former Soviet ally. In the spring, a group of 10 scientists had gone for an initial foray. The Koreans, one of the scientists told me, initially never directly asked about nuclear warheads or missile designs. They claimed only to be interested in rocket science.

The Russians came home that fall and signed up dozens of their comrades as recruits. But the project was not officially sanctioned, and the KGB held them outside of Moscow for two months while the broker tried to re-negotiate their departure. Russian officials later described the North Koreans' aim, without mentioning them by name, as an attempt to build "combat missile complexes that could carry nuclear weapons."

North Korea began with copies of Soviet short-range Scud missiles and moved on to medium-range "Nodong" missiles, but they lacked the range and accuracy to meet Kim's target. A decade after the airport incident, in 2003, credible reports emerged that the North Koreans were deploying a new, far more accurate missile based on the Soviet SS-N-6, a submarine-launched rocket developed by Makeyev in the 1960s. The Nodong-2, as some labeled it, could reach all U.S. bases in Japan and possibly even to Guam.

In the 1990s, the North Koreans developed a long-range missile, potentially reaching U.S. territory, to lend credence to claims they could deter a pre-emptive strike on their nuclear or missile facilities. Some experts believe the Nodong-2 also functions as the second stage of this missile. American intelligence officials believe an otherwise inexplicable leap in missile technology was thanks to the help of Russian scientists.

Still the self-imposed missile test moratorium that Pyongyang agreed to in 1999 made it difficult to move ahead. Late last year, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story, the North Koreans delivered a dozen Nodong-2 missiles to Iran, a close collaborator on missiles since the 1980s. Unconfirmed reports from Germany say Iran tested the missile in January.

The Nodong-2 may have been tested this month, one of the six short- and medium-range missiles set off in a wave or as a stage of the long-range missile. Data from the launch is not yet conclusive, according to U.S. and South Korean officials. Despite the failure of the long-range attempt, it may be more significant that Pyongyang carried out the first successful launch of a Nodong since 1993 and a nighttime barrage of Scuds and Nodongs.

The display of diplomatic unity at the United Nations may give Pyongyang pause. But the relentless nature of North Korea's pursuit of its ballistic missile strength suggests that this is not a bargaining chip that will be readily traded away.