North Korea's successful launch of a weather satellite proves that the secretive communist nation could develop a multistage ballistic missile capable of reaching parts of the United States, potentially with a nuclear warhead, analysts said Wednesday.
The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, said North Korea launched a three-stage rocket, called Unha, that successfully "deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit."
The Unha rockeet is "a proof of concept for the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile," independent space technology analyst Matthew Hoey said. The Taepodong-2 is also a three-stage rocket and has a potential range of more than 4,000 miles, putting Alaska and Hawaii within striking distance, according to South Korea's Defense Ministry. North Korea tested the rocket in 2006, but the test was a failure, according to the ministry.
The successful satellite launch throws the nuclear and ballistic-missile ambitions of North Korea's third-generation hereditary leadership into stark relief, analysts said.
"In technological terms, the launch moves North Korea a major step closer to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)," said James Hardy, Asia Pacific editor for IHS Jane's Defense Weekly.
"While engineers still have elements such as guidance and re-entry vehicle testing to achieve, today's launch remains a significant development in North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear deterrent," he added.
An earlier test launch of an Unha rocket in April failed when it broke up less than two minutes into the flight.
Mr. Hoey said North Korea's biggest problem with the technology has been getting the different stages of the rocket to separate properly.
"With them getting the staging to work, they are much, much closer to achieving a launch of a multistage ballistic missile" capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, he said.
The final stage of the rocket "is the part everyone's worried about, because it's the part that comes back to earth with the bomb on it," Mr. Hoey said.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests since 2008, although it is unclear how successful they were. The United States estimates that North Korea has enough plutonium for as many as six weapons.
The U.N. Security Council is slated to meet in emergency closed session Wednesday in New York to consider a response to North Korea's defiance of the world body, which repeatedly has sanctioned the regime to little apparent effect.
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