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.
South Korea, the United States, Japan, Australia and other nations quickly condemned the launch. Even China, North Korea’s only ally in the region, expressed “regret” over the launch.
The U.S. and its allies have long said that North Korea’s long-range rocket launches — this was the fifth since 1998 — are ballistic missile tests because the same technology applies. The United Nations has banned North Korea from conducting such tests.
The rocket was launched nearly a week before the first anniversary of the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, on Dec. 17. He was succeeded by his 20-something son, Kim Jung-un, in January.
Earlier this month, North Korean officials announced their intention to launch the rocket between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22 to commemorate Kim’s death.
However, officials at North Korea’s space center had said the launch window had been extended to Dec. 29 to enable engineers to address some technical issues with the rocket.
The Unha-3 launch was “a successful proof of concept for the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile,” said space technology analyst Matthew Hoey.
The Taepodong-2 has a range of more than 4,000 miles, which would put Alaska and Hawaii within striking distance of North Korean missiles, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
A remote threat
David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass., said North Korea’s ability to launch a nuclear-armed ballistic missile is a remote threat.
First, the North Koreans would have to convert a long-range rocket to a ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead, he said. Then they would have to miniaturize a nuclear weapon to fit atop the missile.
Finally, they would need to create a heat shield to enable the warhead to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere without burning up, Mr. Wright said.
However, analysts said the launch’s success has given North Korea some negotiating muscle in dealing with Washington, which has sought to curb the North’s uranium enrichment and weapons programs.
“North Korea is very clear that they want to be recognized as a nuclear power. … They want to negotiate with the U.S. with regard to [nuclear] weapons programs they have already developed,” said Choi Jin-wook of the Korea Institute of National Unification in Seoul. “I think the U.S. cannot postpone urgent negotiations any further, because now North Korea has both a nuclear program and a delivery system.”
Six-party talks involving North and South Korea, the United States, China, Russia and Japan on halting the North’s nuclear program have been stalled since 2009.
He noted that North Korean officials shrugged off the Obama administration’s attempt to reach out to the regime in 2009 and that a U.S. deal last year to provide food aid in exchange for North Korea’s abandonment of its uranium enrichment program failed.
“There were hopes that talking would prevent another provocation,” Mr. Klingner said. “There is now less optimism.”
More sanctions ahead?
The launch was carried out in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which ban North Korea from conducting ballistic missile tests.
Analysts questioned the effectiveness of further sanctions.
“They are already [are] one of the most heavily sanctioned countries on earth and also one of the most isolated,” said Ellen Kim, a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The question now is, are sanctions enough, or do we need more effective measures, and whether we have such measures in our policy toolbox that we can deploy.”
“China clearly came out beforehand to oppose the rocket launch, but their influence is limited,” she said. “We need to see how China will do in the United Nations Security Council.”
Meanwhile, Bruce Bennett, an analyst for the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., said North Korea is thought to have first obtained ballistic missile technology — Scud missiles built by the Soviet Union — from Egypt in the late 1970s.
“Either they reverse-engineered the Scuds they got from Egypt, or they got help from the Soviets, or the Soviets just sold them the parts,” Mr. Bennett said.
• Kristina Wong reported from Washington. Shaun Waterman in Washington contributed to this report.