N. Korea launch an intel opportunity for U.S., allies

U.S., allied forces will gather much on rocket’s reach

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TOKYO — As the U.S. and its allies decry North Korea’s planned rocket launch, they also are rushing to capitalize on the rare opportunity it presents to assess the secretive nation’s ability to strike beyond its shores.

If North Korea goes ahead with the launch, expected to take place between April 12 and 16, the U.S., Japan and South Korea will have more military assets on hand than ever to track the rocket and — if necessary — shoot it out of the sky.

Behind the scenes, they will be analyzing everything from where the rocket’s booster stages fall to the shape of its nose cone. The information they gather could deeply affect regional defense planning and future arms talks.

Military planners want to know how much progress North Korea has made since its last attempt to launch a satellite three years ago. Arms negotiators will be looking for signs of how much the rocket, a modified ballistic missile launcher, depends on foreign technology.

“There are a number of things they will be watching for,” said Narushige Michishita, a North Korea specialist with Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “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.”

North Korea says this month's planned launch from its new Tongchang-ri launch facility on the country's west coast will send the satellite into a polar orbit. (Digital Globe via Associated Press)

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North Korea says this month’s planned launch from its new Tongchang-ri launch ... more >

Military implications

One thing analysts could put to the test quickly is North Korea’s insistence that the satellite launch is a peaceful mission.

Experts can easily estimate from photographs the rocket stages’ mass ratio — a measure of their efficiency — and that will give an indication of whether the rocket is designed primarily to be a space vehicle launcher or long-range missile.

They also will be watching where the rocket goes.

North Korea says it will fire the satellite into a polar orbit. The “splash zones” for the booster stages suggest it will travel south over the East China Sea and the Pacific, rather than the easterly path it chose for a launch in 2009 that sent the rocket directly over Japan’s main island.

That could indicate North Korea is being more cautious about its neighbors’ reactions — though it has alarmed others such as the Philippines, which could be in the rocket’s path.

But the launch also could have military implications.

If North Korea were to attack the United States, Mr. Michishita said, it likely would launch to the north. It can’t feasibly conduct such a test because that would anger Russia and China, which would be under the flight path. Launching to the south can provide similar data.

Actually reaching the splash zones is another hurdle. In the 2009 launch, the rocket stages barely made their zones, suggesting they had lower thrust than expected.

Analysts stress that success by no means suggests North Korea could pull off an attack on the U.S.

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