Global Security Newswire
Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues
Analysts See Little Technical Advancement in North Korean Rocket Technology
North Korea's latest rocket failure suggests the nation has not made much technical progress in developing long-range ballistic flight capabilities since its last unsuccessful attempt in spring 2009, the Associated Press on Tuesday cited issue experts as saying (see GSN, April 16).
Specialists now think it will be some time before the aspiring nuclear power wields a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.
The North's new Kim Jong Un regime had bragged it would display its technical prowess by sending a satellite into space on Friday. Instead, the Unha 3 rocket broke up and fell into the Yellow Sea about two minutes after takeoff.
Analysts poring over data from the launch believe it shows the isolated North has not learned from its previous three failed rocket launches. The cause of the most recent failure is believed to have been from problems with the rocket's initial stage.
"An obvious conclusion is they have a major reliability problem. This is the second Unha first stage that malfunctioned early in flight, after the July 4, 2006 launch and this is Unha 3," Stanford University analyst Neil Hansen said. "The Unha technology for at least the first stage appears frozen to the early 2000s."
The Stanford expert said the chief dissimilarity between the rocked launched in spring 2009 and last Friday's system was "the paint that said 3 on the rocket body."
A number of top U.S. defense officials have voiced worries that North Korea is within years of fielding an ICBM that could hit the mainland United States. The most-recent rocket failure would seem to lessen those fears, according to AP.
"The fact this failed so early calls into question how good its technology is," Union of Concerned Scientists missile specialist David Wright said. "Rockets are very complicated and any one of dozens of things can go wrong and cause failure, so it isn't good enough just to get pieces to work. You need the whole system to work. North Korea clearly isn't there yet."
Hansen did see some improvements, though, particularly in expedited ground preparations for the launch that included putting the rocket together and fueling the system.
Pyongyang has declared it will carry on with its space program. The size of North Korea's missile launchpad indicates it was built to fire larger-size objects than the Unha 3, Hansen said.
Analysts also do not think the large new missile displayed in a Sunday military parade in Pyongyang represents a substantial technical jump forward for North Korea's missile program.
"It appears to be much too small to be an ICBM," Wright said. "And it looks like an odd configuration, so it's not clear what it says about North Korea's design capability."
Analysts seemed more intrigued by the 16-wheel vehicle that transported the missile. It is the largest of its kind seen yet in the Stalinist state; its mobility and substantial size mean it could shift large missiles from site to site in an effort to escape detection.
The missile transport vehicle seemingly corresponds to the launch vehicles developed by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp., according to Jane's Defense Weekly's Ted Parsons. Hansen said it might be akin to systems from Belarus or Russia.
Selling the transport system to Pyongyang would breach U.N. Security Council sanctions targeting North Korea (Eric Talmadge, Associated Press/San Francisco Chronicle, April 17).
The U.S. envoy to the United Nations said the Security Council's ability to quickly and unanimously issue a presidential statement strongly condemning the rocket launch signals the global community is unified in its intent to show Pyongyang that such hostile activities will not be tolerated, Reuters reported.
"The Security Council made clear that there will be consequences for any future North Korean launch or nuclear test," Ambassador Susan Rice said, noting that Monday's presidential statement "strongly condemns" North Korea. That is slightly stronger language than the 15-nation U.N. body issued following the regime's 2009 launch.
While Pyongyang claims otherwise, the United States and other nations believe the launches are intended as test of North Korean ballistic missile technology.
Though Rice said the statement urged "new sanctions," in reality it called for the Security Council panel with oversight on North Korean sanctions to within 15 days study adding new entities to an existing list of blackballed North Korean companies and individuals. Council measures passed in 2006 and 2009 target the North's nuclear and missile development programs.
The United States intends to put forth a "robust package" of new firms and persons to come under current Security Council sanctions, Rice said.
The sanctions committee includes representatives from all Security Council members states and reaches decisions by unanimous agreement, which gives China the power to impede expanding the sanctions list. Beijing has a history of using its permanent seat on the council to block or water down measures targeting North Korea (Louis Charbonneau, Reuters, April 16).
Describing the Security Council's response as "incremental," Institute for Science and International Security President David Albright nevertheless said it was valuable in demonstrating Beijing has chosen to take a firmer line with the North, the Washington Post reported.
"This is more than I expected. It shows there is some desire to seriously start to pressure North Korea within the confines established by China," Albright said.
The true sign of a new Chinese resolve would be its readiness to enforce penalties, he said. "Will China ... suddenly start searching everything that goes into North Korea by train or by truck? Will it start cracking down on North Korea illicit procurement for its missile and nuclear programs?" (Colum Lynch, Washington Post, April 16).
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced confidence on Monday that Beijing and other governments would support "further consequences" for the North should it carry out fresh hostile actions, Agence France-Presse reported.
The United States, South Korea, and Japan are concerned North Korea could seek to regain some lost military pride with a new atomic test. Recently taken satellite images of the country's Punggye-ri test site point to preparations for another underground nuclear blast (see related GSN story, today).
"We have all agreed -- that includes China -- that there will be further consequences if they pursue another provocative action," Clinton said to journalists in Brasilia.
As North Korea's biggest economic supporter, China is thought to hold the most influence over the regime's actions (Agence France-Presse/Google News, April 16).
The Chinese government on Monday urged further diplomacy to resolve issues with North Korea, the Xinhua News Agency reported.
"It has been proven that dialogue and consultation are the only right way to solve problems," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
The spokesman called on the Security Council to do more to encourage diplomacy and stable relations on the Korean Peninsula (Xinhua News Agency/Crienglish.com, April 16).
The lead U.S. diplomat to East Asia on Monday traveled to South Korea and Japan for talks on how to respond to North Korea, Voice of America reported.
"There's a very strong determination among all international partners -- including China, Russia, Japan, South Korea -- all countries of Asia, to discourage any further provocations from North Korea," Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said in Seoul.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in a Monday radio speech reiterated calls for North Korea to abandon its WMD drive (Steve Herman, Voice of America, April 16).
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