North Korean Test Showed Improved Missile Capability, Japan Says

North Korea's trial launch last month demonstrated an improvement in the country's long-range missile capability in the years since its last test, according to a Japanese Defense Ministry report released today (see GSN, April 6).

The object -- which Pyongyang says was a satellite-carrying rocket, but which other nations believe incorporated long-range missile technology -- flew farther than 1,800 miles before plunging into the Pacific Ocean, according to the ministry. The Taepodong 2 long-range missile that North Korea test-fired in July 2006 only traveled around 60 miles, the Asahi Shimbun reported.

The report says the launch was intended to "verify technical tasks needed to improve the capabilities of ballistic missiles." It predicts that Pyongyang would probably be able to continue increasing the reach of its missiles, which should grow more accurate and capable of delivering heavier payloads. The information collected from this test could also help North Korea make adjustments the shorter-range missiles Nodong missile, which could not reach the United States but could easily strike Japan, according to the report (Asahi Shimbun, May 15).

However, some experts say Pyongyang has significant obstacles to overcome before it successfully procures a viable intercontinental nuclear missile, Voice of America reported yesterday.

The three-stage Taepodong 2 is designed to travel up to 2,800 miles. However, "miniaturizing a nuclear device and putting it on top of a three-stage rocket is the most difficult technological feat in the nuclear age," said Jim Walsh, a nuclear expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"It's relatively simple to build -- comparatively relatively simple to build a nuclear weapon because most first-stage, early stage nuclear weapons are quite large, and it's a pretty straightforward engineering task," Walsh said. "But miniaturizing that nuclear weapon and then putting it on a missile and launching that missile and having 100 percent certainty that missile is supposed to go where you're aiming it and is not going to blow up over your own country -- that's quite a technological feat."

North Korea is believed to have between six and 12 nuclear weapons (Andre de Nesnera, Voice of America, May 14).

The top U.S. military officer in Japan on Wednesday said the United States and Japan were "100 percent ready" for the April 5 test and executed a "seamless" coordinated response, the Associated Press reported.

"There was no frantic activity," said Maj. Gen. Francis Wiercinski. "It was smooth, it was calm, everyone understood the facts. I thought it was seamless, transparent and successful."

Wiercinski said the United States and Japan shared information about the launch and coordinated efforts to communicate with the public so as to avoid panic. He declined to specify what information the two nations shared (Eric Talmadge, Associated Press/Sulekha.com, May 14).

May 15, 2009
About

North Korea's trial launch last month demonstrated an improvement in the country's long-range missile capability in the years since its last test, according to a Japanese Defense Ministry report released today (see GSN, April 6).