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North Korea Rocket Launch a Breakthrough in Strategic Missile Program: Experts

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

A monitor screen shows the Wednesday takeoff of North Korea's Unha 3 long-range rocket. The successful flight into space is a significant step toward the North's demonstration of an ICBM capability, experts said, while noting there are number of technical hurdles left to overcome (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency).
A monitor screen shows the Wednesday takeoff of North Korea's Unha 3 long-range rocket. The successful flight into space is a significant step toward the North's demonstration of an ICBM capability, experts said, while noting there are number of technical hurdles left to overcome (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency).

WASHINGTON -- North Korea achieved a major breakthrough in its strategic ballistic missile development program on Wednesday when it sent a rocket into space, U.S. analysts said. They agreed, though, that Pyongyang still has far to go before it has a nuclear-armed missile that can threaten the United States.

Until this month, North Korea had carried out four failed space rocket launches since 1998. Both the timing and the success of the Unha 3 launch took a number of observers by surprise, given the high-profile failure of its previous attempt in April and that Pyongyang only on Monday had announced discovery of a problem in one of the space vehicle’s stages.

“North Korea’s test is an achievement. Few countries have put objects into orbit, but it is not going to affect the military balance in the region,” Arms Control Association Executive Director Daryl Kimball told Global Security Newswire. “A credible threat of a North Korean nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile is still years away.”

The United States and regional allies are still collecting technical data on the launch, but the North American Aerospace Defense Command confirmed the rocket deployed an object that seems to have achieved orbit. That is in line with Pyongyang’s stated goal of sending a weather monitoring satellite into space. The rocket also appears to have followed its published flight path, dropping its first stage into the Yellow Sea and the second to the east of the Philippines.

Should the data show the Unha 3 rocket flew through to its final stage, North Korea will have for the first time demonstrated a capability to send a vehicle roughly 6,212 miles -- a range sufficient to hit targets on the U.S. West Coast.

Pyongyang, though, must still prove a number of additional ICBM capabilities -- namely precision targeting and a re-entry vehicle that can survive the trip back through the atmosphere. Missile experts say these capabilities must be demonstrated multiple times for North Korea to derive any military confidence in a strategic deterrent.

“It’s one thing to send it up. It’s another thing to bring it back down where you want it to come down,” said military space expert Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation. “Right now their rockets to this point, to be kind, have been fairly inaccurate,” she said in an interview. “They’re lucky they can get them off the ground much less hit the broadside of a barn.”

Additionally, the North must be able to build nuclear warheads small enough to be mounted on a missile as well as an ICBM large enough to carry such a heavy payload. Neither capability has yet been seen.

The Unha 3  “can't carry enough payload to be of any significant threat. … It's a baby satellite launcher, and not a very good one at that,” David Montague, former president of Lockheed Martin Missile Defense Systems, said earlier this fall.

The North’s nuclear-weapon capabilities also remain in doubt. It conducted atomic test blasts in 2006 and 2009; neither was considered fully successful.

James Schoff, senior associate in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program, on Wednesday noted then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ early 2011 comments that North Korea was within five years of possessing missiles that could hit the mainland United States. “This is all in line with that,” Schoff said. “They have certainly demonstrated the distance piece. This is the first time they have ever credibly gotten to the point where they can say we have something that can go 10,000 kilometers.”

The North’s longest-range operational ballistic missile is the Musudan, which is believed to have a top flight distance of 2,500 miles.

The Stalinist state’s April attempt to send an Unha 3 into space -- the rocket broke apart shortly after leaving the ground -- suggested the North was actually getting worse in its long-range missile tests. A long-range rocket launched in 2009 managed to travel 1,900 miles before splashing down in the Pacific. That effort involved an Unha 2 rocket understood to have been a modified version of the North’s developmental long-range Taepodong 2 missile. The Unha 3 is also thought to be derived from the Taepodong 2.

“I guess I’m a little less surprised that it was successful. I was more surprised how devastating the failure was in April because they were getting better every time,” said Schoff, a former adviser for East Asia policy in the U.S. Defense secretary’s office.

Despite the breakthrough nature of Wednesday’s rocket launch, Schoff said it had little chance of significantly impacting U.S. policy toward the North. “There has already been a high level concern about North Korea’s WMD program, their export of missile technology. We’ve taken them seriously for a long, long time.”

North Korea’s successful space launch is “worrisome,” Kimball said, as “it’s another step in the wrong direction but the significance here is mainly for now symbolic. The more significant military threat posed by North Korea is to its immediate neighbors from its short-range ballistic missiles.”

The rocket launch is more likely to throw a wrench in any nascent diplomacy outreach toward the North in 2013, Schoff said. Following President Obama's re-election in the United States, and with new governments coming into power in China and South Korea, analysts had been predicting a greater possibility of re-engagement with Pyongyang over its missile and nuclear work.

Next year "was shaping up to be a great opportunity” to see what might be possible through a return to negotiations,  Schoff said, adding the rocket firing “makes it harder for people to make that argument politically.”

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