- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

The failure of North Korea’s rocket to reach orbit Sunday buys the United States time to address the security threat, but the launch’s partial success could boost Pyongyang’s sales of missile technology to Syria, Iran and others, diplomats and analysts said.

Officials in the United States and Asia said the North’s long-range Taepodong-2 rocket fizzled and plopped into the Pacific after flying over Japan, without putting its payload into orbit.

With North Korea already having developed a nuclear weapon, Sunday’s launch of a multistage rocket was considered a key hurdle in achieving the capability to attack Alaska or the Western United States.

“There is no immediate danger, and I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it, but it appears their capabilities have somewhat improved since 1998,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security.

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation advocating the elimination of nuclear weapons, called the launch an “impressive technological achievement, but a long way from a significant threat.”

“It likely represents, however, the upper limits of what the country can do by stretching and adapting the Scud technology they acquired from the former Soviet Union,” he said.

North Korea launched a similar rocket in 1998. Like Sunday’s test, the rocket’s first two stages successfully separated, but it failed to achieve orbit and plunged into the Pacific after clearing Japan.

Mr. Cirincione said Sunday’s rocket appears to have carried a payload of about 400 pounds. A typical first-generation nuclear warhead that a missile is supposed to carry weighs about 2,200 pounds, and the primitive nuclear device tested by North Korea in 2006 is estimated to weigh more than 3,300 pounds, he said.

“That means North Korea’s current nuclear weapons are simply too heavy to [be] launched by a vehicle similar to the one tested on Sunday,” he said. “To threaten Los Angeles or Washington, North Korea needs a much bigger missile that can carry more weight over a longer distance. Building one will require major advances in metallurgy, rocket engines, guidance and propulsion.”

The North’s first test of a Taepodong-2 missile in 2006 exploded seconds after liftoff.

Greg Thielmann, senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, said Sunday’s launch allowed North Korea to test some of the performance required by a military system.

“The 2009 test provides no information on whether North Korea has successfully designed the front end of a long-range military missile, which must withstand the severe stress of re-entry through the atmosphere - not a trivial technological challenge.”

North Korea said its Sunday-morning launch successfully placed an experimental communications satellite into orbit and that the satellite is transmitting data and patriotic songs.

The U.S. Northern Command rebutted this, stating that the missile and its payload had splashed in the Pacific, Reuters news agency reported.

South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee also said the rocket and its second stage failed to deliver a payload into orbit.

However unsophisticated the missile might have been, it demonstrated the North’s determination to develop more dangerous technology, officials and analysts said.

“We need to look at what transpired today and make a new assessment as a consequence,” Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told ABC’s “This Week.”

Mr. Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector, said he expected the launch to increase North Korean missile and missile-technology sales to other nations.

“This will help their business in the Middle East,” he said. “They will be sharing data with Syria and Iran.”

He also said the test is likely to prompt renewed calls for building missile-defense systems, which the George W. Bush administration championed. President Obama has expressed doubts about the effectiveness of existing technology and has urged more scientific research.

Many analysts agreed that missiles should become part of six-country talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs.

The North has refused to consider broadening the talks, which nevertheless remain in limbo over other issues; namely, its refusal to accept verification measures for past nuclear pledges.

“What we have to be most concerned with is not only their nuclear weapons program, but this missile technology, which they sell to other countries [and it] gives them money to keep their regime going,” Wendy Sherman, a former negotiator with the North during the Clinton administration, said on CNN.

Barbara Slavin contributed to this report.

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