Ex­perts: N. Korea mis­sile pro­gram lags

Launch of satel­lite sparks con­cerns, but na­tion has long way to go, of­fi­cials say.

Austin American-Statesman - - THE SECOND FRONT - By Fos­ter Klug and matthew Pen­ning­ton

SEOUL, SOUth KOrEa — Af­ter 14 years of painstak­ing la­bor, North Korea fi­nally has a rocket that can put a satel­lite in or­bit. But the reclu­sive coun­try isn’t close to hav­ing an in­tercon­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile.

Ex­perts say Py­ongyang is years from even hav­ing a shot at de­vel­op­ing re­li­able mis­siles that could hit the Amer­i­can main­land and other dis­tant tar­gets, although it did gain at­ten­tion and out­rage world lead­ers Wed­nes­day with its first suc­cess­ful launch of a three-stage, long-range rocket.

A mis­sile pro­gram is built on decades of sys­tem­atic, in­tri­cate test­ing, some­thing ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for an eco­nom­i­cally strug­gling Py­ongyang, which faces sanc­tions and world con­dem­na­tion each time it stages an ex­pen­sive launch. North Korea will need larger and more de­pend­able mis­siles, and more ad­vanced nu­clear weapons, to threaten U.S. shores, though it al­ready poses a threat to its neigh­bors.

“One success in­di­cates progress, but not vic­tory, and there is a huge gap be­tween be­ing able to make a sys­tem work once and hav­ing a sys­tem that is re­li­able enough to be mil­i­tar­ily use­ful,” said Brian Wee­den, a former U.S. Air Force Space Com­mand of­fi­cer and a tech­ni­cal ad­viser to the Se­cure World Foun­da­tion, a think tank on space pol­icy.

North Korea’s satel­lite launch came only af­ter re­peated fail­ures and hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. It is an achieve­ment for young au­thor­i­tar­ian leader Kim Jong Un, whose late fa­ther and pre­de­ces­sor, Kim Jong Il, made devel­op­ment of mis­siles and nu­clear weapons a pri­or­ity de­spite in­ter­na­tional op­po­si­tion and his na­tion’s poverty.

Kim said the achieve­ment “fur­ther con­sol­i­dated” the coun­try’s sta­tus “as a space power,” the government’s of­fi­cial Korean Cen­tral News Agency re­ported Thurs­day. It added that Kim “stressed the need to con­tinue to launch satel­lites in the fu­ture.”

Kim vis­ited the com­mand cen­ter, gave the fi­nal writ­ten launch or­der and “keenly ob­served the whole pro­cesses of the launch” Wed­nes­day, KCNA re­ported. It said the satel­lite en­tered into its or­bit 9 min­utes and 27 sec­onds af­ter the launch, at 9:59 a.m.

South Korea’s De­fense Min­istry said Thurs­day the satel­lite was or­bit­ing nor­mally at a speed of 4.7 miles per sec­ond, though it’s not known what mis­sion it is per­form­ing. North Korean space of­fi­cials say the satel­lite would be used to study crops and weather pat­terns.

Though Py­ongyang in­sists the project is peace­ful, it also has con­ducted two nu­clear tests and has de­fied in­ter­na­tional de­mands that it give up its nu­clear weapons pro­gram.

A se­nior U.S. of­fi­cial said the satel­lite is tum­bling in or­bit and not act­ing as it should, but the of­fi­cial said that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean it is out of con­trol. The of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity, said the im­por­tant take­away is that North Korea was able to suc­cess­fully ex­e­cute all three stages of the mis­sile launch and get the satel­lite into space.

The U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil said in a brief state­ment af­ter closed con­sul­ta­tions Wed­nes­day that the launch vi­o­lates coun­cil res­o­lu­tions against the North’s use of bal­lis­tic mis­sile tech­nol­ogy, and said it would ur­gently con­sider “an ap­pro­pri­ate re­sponse.”

“This launch is about a weapons pro­gram, not peace­ful use of space,” U.S. State De­part­ment spokes­woman Vic­to­ria Nu­land said. Even the North’s most im­por­tant ally, China, ex­pressed re­gret.

North Korea has long pos­sessed the com­po­nents needed to con­struct long-range rock­ets. Sci­en­tists in Py­ongyang, how­ever, had been try­ing and fail­ing since 1998 to con­duct a suc­cess­ful launch. Only this week — their fifth try — did they do so, prompt­ing danc­ing in the streets of the cap­i­tal.

North Korea’s far more ad­vanced ri­val, South Korea, has failed twice since 2009 to launch a satel­lite on a rocket from its own ter­ri­tory, and post­poned two at­tempts in re­cent weeks be­cause of tech­ni­cal prob­lems.

Each ad­vance­ment Py­ongyang makes causes worry in Washington and among North Korea’s neigh­bors. In 2010, U.S. Sec­re­tary of De­fense Robert Gates warned that within five years the North could de­velop an in­tercon­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile ca­pa­ble of reach­ing the United States.

Wed­nes­day’s launch sug­gests the North is on track for that, said former U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial James Schoff, now an ex­pert on East Asia at the Carnegie En­dow­ment for In­terna- tional Peace.

But he and other ex­perts say the North must still sur­mount tough tech­ni­cal bar­ri­ers to build the ul­ti­mate mil­i­tary threat: a so­phis­ti­cated nu­clear war­head small enough to mount on a long-range mis­sile, some­thing ex­perts say will be the fo­cus of fu­ture nu­clear tests.

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