- Associated Press - Thursday, April 5, 2012

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.”

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.

North Korea has a long way to go in testing the technologies required for re-entry — a key to missile delivery that is not tested in satellites.

And while North Korea is believed to be capable of producing nuclear weapons — and almost certainly wants to put them on a military-use missile — it is not yet able to make them small enough to load into a warhead. Doing so likely will require another nuclear test, which North Korea hasn’t done since 2009.

The launcher itself is another issue — and it has a history of fail ure.

The Unha-3 rocket that will be used is believed to be a modified version of North Korea’s long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missile, which mixes domestic, Soviet-era and possibly Iranian designs.

North Korea launched its first Taepodong-2 in 2006, and it exploded just 40 seconds after liftoff.


A follow-up attempt in 2009 got off the launch pad and successfully completed a tricky pitching maneuver, but analysts believe its third stage failed to separate properly, sending it and the satellite it carried into the Pacific.

Even so, physicists David Wright and Theodore Postol of the Union of Concerned Scientists say the 2009 launch displayed major strides over the Taepodong-1.

If modified as a ballistic missile, they say, it could give the North the capability to reach the continental United States with a payload of 1 ton.

In an analysis of the 2009 launch, Mr. Wright and Mr. Postol suggested North Korea relies heavily on a stockpile of foreign components, likely from Russia.

If data from the upcoming launch confirms that, it may mean Pyongyang’s missile program is severely limited by the isolated country’s ability to procure new parts from abroad.

That could figure into future arms talks. If North Korea is running out of the parts it needs, it isn’t likely to conduct frequent missile tests, and it may be more willing to agree to test moratoriums.

More emphasis on blocking its imports also would make sense if the North cannot manufacture what it needs.

What analysts find out will figure into regional security planning for years to come — as North Korea’s first attempted satellite launch did in 1998.

Japan and the United States responded to that launch by pouring billions of dollars into the world’s most advanced ballistic-missile shield. That shield includes a network of sea-based SM-3 interceptor missiles and land-based PAC-3 Patriot missiles.

Japan now is mobilizing PAC-3 units in Okinawa, which is near the path of the upcoming launch and where more than half of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan are deployed.

It’s also mobilizing PAC-3 units in Tokyo, which is much farther from the rocket’s expected path. South Korea is taking similar steps — which it didn’t do in 2009.

The U.S. will be watching with equipment that was unavailable in 2009: a Sea-based X-Band radar system aboard a Navy ship that left Pearl Harbor late last month. U.S. officials say the SBX system is so powerful it can track a baseball-sized object flying through space 2,500 miles away.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide