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North Korea Rocket Launch May Offer Intel Boon

North Korean missiles, shown on display in a 2007 military parade in Pyongyang. A planned North Korean rocket launch could enable outside powers to gather valuable data on the Stalinist state’s long-range missile capabilities, according to a Thursday news report (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency). North Korean missiles, shown on display in a 2007 military parade in Pyongyang. A planned North Korean rocket launch could enable outside powers to gather valuable data on the Stalinist state’s long-range missile capabilities, according to a Thursday news report (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency).

North Korea's determination to carry out a long-range rocket launch this month could have a silver lining for the United States and partner nations -- the chance to collect rare intelligence on the aspiring nuclear power's capacity to mount long-range missile strikes, the Associated Press reported on Thursday (see GSN, April 5).

Japan, the United States and South Korea would have a variety of systems in place to monitor the flight path of the Unha 3 rocket and will study the separation of its boosters and even the dimensions of the tip of the system The collected technical data could influence U.S. and allied nations' regional military strategies and possible arms negotiations, according to AP.

Government defense analysts are eager to learn if the North has made advancements in its long-range ballistic missile technology since the last evident test in spring 2009. That trial is presumed to have involved the North's Taepodong 2 missile.

Weapons envoys are expected to watch for any indications that the Unha 3 rocket, which the North says will carry a satellite into space between April 12 and 16, has benefited from international technology.

"There are a number of things they will be watching for," said Narushige Michishita, a Japanese expert on North Korea. "If North Korea does get a satellite into orbit, that means it could deliver an object anywhere on the globe, and that has intercontinental implications."

It would be relatively simple for specialists to determine whether Pyongyang has been truthful in its claims the rocket does not have military applications, according to AP. They would be able to examine pictures of the flight to deduce the level of efficiency of its rocket stages, according to AP. Depending on the mass ratio of the rocket components, analysts should know if the North Korean system was principally created as a long-range weapon or as a space system delivery platform.

Specialists would track the flight path to determine if the rocket is a danger to any nearby nations. While the announced flight path would not send the rocket over Japan's biggest island -- as was the case in 2009 -- the rocket could come close to the Philippines, which has caused Manila considerable concern.

Tokyo and Seoul have both announced they would attempt to intercept the rocket if they conclude it threatens their territories.

None of North Korea's previous presumed long-range ballistic missile tests have been fully successful. Were this month's rocket launch to achieve its aim of placing a satellite in orbit, it would not necessarily mean Pyongyang now has the capability to strike the mainland United Sates, specialists emphasized.

The Stalinist state still has to make considerable advancements in its development of re-entry vehicles -- a central component of ballistic missiles that cannot be assessed via satellite launches. Pyongyang is also not yet believed to have the ability to build nuclear warheads small enough to fix to a missile, AP said.

The actual firing of the rocket could be tricky; a 2006 launch using the Taepodong 2 ended when the rocket blew up 40 seconds after leaving the ground.

An expert assessment of the 2009 launch concluded that North Korea's missile program was still dependent primarily on a cache of parts from outside its borders, probably from Russia. Should technical information from the forthcoming launch verify this is still the case, it could mean the North's missile development has been significantly impacted by international sanctions that bar the acquisition of foreign components.

That knowledge could come into use in possible denuclearization negotiations. If Pyongyang is down to only a few missile components, it is unlikely to carry out many more missile assessments and could be open to accepting a moratorium on testing. A stronger international focus on curtailing the nation's ability to buy foreign parts would be logical if North Korea is unable itself to build the components, according to AP (Eric Talmadge, Associated Press/Time, April 5).

Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba on Wednesday said the U.N. Security Council should address the matter if North Korea carries out the rocket launch, Kyodo News reported.

Pyongyang is forbidden under U.N. Security Council resolutions from using ballistic missile technology in any kind of launch.

"I am certain that the launch would be a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions," Gemba told journalists, continuing that "some response will be needed" by the powerful U.N. body (Kyodo News I/Mainichi Daily News, April 5).

Washington on Wednesday urged foreign nations to refrain from accepting the North's invitation to send representatives to witness the rocket launch, as doing so could give Pyongyang a propaganda tool to argue the event is internationally accepted, the Yonhap News Agency reported.

"We call on the international community to abstain from taking any actions, such as sending observers, that might be seen as endorsing a launch that would be in blatant defiance of the D.P.R.K.'s international obligations and commitments,” an anonymous U.S. State Department official said.

North Korea is known to have invited Japanese space research specialists to observe the launch; Tokyo spurned the invitation.

The U.S. official said Washington would not send any officials (Lee Chi-dong, Yonhap News Agency, April 4).

The upcoming launch is likely to receive considerable attention at a Washington meeting next week of the foreign policy chiefs from the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations, Kyodo reported (Kyodo News, April 4).

U.S. Defense Department spokesman George Little on Tuesday refused to share what concrete responses the U.S. armed forces have prepared for the North Korean launch, the Washington Times reported.

Separately, the Pentagon indicated it was studying reports that North Korea has developed a missile with ICBM capabilities.

The South Korean Chosun Ilbo newspaper earlier this week in a report that relied on anonymous government officials said new reconnaissance photographs from the North Korean capital showed a missile considerably larger than the Taepodong 2 missile. The report noted it was not apparent from the images whether the missile was a working model or a dummy.

"This is something we're working with our partners on," Little said in response to the Chosun Ilbo report.

Current U.S. intelligence assessments to Congress gauge that North Korea is working on a continent-spanning ballistic missile that can be transported overland (see GSNMarch 8).

The suspected movable long-range missile is "advertised to be significant in terms of its range capability," the commander of U.S. Pacific forces, Adm. Robert Willard, told lawmakers last month (Bill Gertz, Washington Times, April 4).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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