SEOUL — North Korea’s successful launch of a long-range rocket early Wednesday, despite later difficulties controlling the weather satellite it was carrying, demonstrates significant technological development by the secretive communist state, analysts said.
What’s more, the launch of the Unha-3 rocket poses a national security threat for the United States and a difficult challenge for the international community to end North Korea’s illicit nuclear program.
“Any country that is successful in putting a satellite into orbit has intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, capability,” said Kim Tae-woo, an analyst on North Korea’s strategic programs and former chief of the Korea Institute of National Unification, a think tank in Seoul.
The surprise rocket launch — in defiance of U.N. resolutions and warnings by the international community — indicates that North Korea is working toward ICBM capability, which would enable it to hit targets far from its shores such as Alaska and Hawaii.
“They have not demonstrated a re-entry vehicle yet,” said Dan Pinkston, who heads the International Crisis Group’s office in Seoul. “But this is clearly what they are working on.”
Without a re-entry vehicle, a warhead on an ICBM would burn up in the atmosphere.
Still, former CIA official Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation, said the North Koreans’ successful launch “really brings the threat closer to home.”
Mr. Klingner noted that the missile technology can be shared with other countries such as Iran and Pakistan, which have helped North Korea develop its multistage rocket know-how throughout the past decade.
North Korea launched a three-stage rocket carrying a weather satellite at 9:49 a.m. local time Wednesday from its Sohae (West Coast) Space Center. A similar launch in April ended with the rocket crashing into the Pacific.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed the launch’s success.
“Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea,” NORAD said. “Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.”
Late Wednesday, there were signs that the satellite was tumbling in orbit, but Jonathan McDowell, a scholar at the Harvard University Center for Astrophysics, said that does not mean it would crash to Earth, or even that it was out of control.
“It very likely will remain in orbit for years,” he said.
“It is very likely that [the North Koreans] are still in contact with it,” he said, adding it was unclear whether the satellite was equipped with the maneuver capability that would be needed in order to stop the tumbling.
While the satellite continues to tumble, he said, it will not be able to produce the kind of weather imagery for which it apparently was designed.