- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 13, 2012

U.S. missile experts have noted the success of North Korea’s satellite launch late Tuesday, but the Pentagon has said it is still assessing the event to determine whether it was indeed a success.

The Pentagon’s hesitance has piqued the curiosity of some experts.

“Their own data shows very clearly that, yes, the satellite is in orbit,” Harvard University astrophysicist Jonathan McDowellsaid, noting that the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) issued a statement confirming the launch’s success. “I don’t understand what’s motivating [the Pentagon’s hesitance] Perhaps not wanting to say anything positive about North Korea.”

A Pentagon spokeswoman said Thursday that there were no updates on Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s comments Wednesday to CNN. He said U.S. officials were still looking at the “final stage” to determine if the North Koreans had succeeded in launching a satellite with a three-stage rocket.

Mr. McDowell said space surveillance data show four objects in orbit associated with the North Korean launch — the satellite that was affixed to the rocket and presumably debris from the rocket’s final stage, a common occurrence for any satellite launch.

The astrophysicist said it is less clear whether the North Korean weather satellite is working properly or “tumbling out of control,” as NBC News reported a U.S. official as saying late Wednesday.

North Korea had announced it would launch the satellite between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22 to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of former leader Kim Jung-il, who died Dec. 17. But North Korean officials later said the launch window had been extended to Dec. 29 so that engineers could work on some technical issues.

The launch late Tuesday surprised many observers.

“The U.S. appears to have been caught flat-footed by the test,” Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution, wrote Wednesday.

Noting that North Korean officials had extended the launch window, Mr. Pollack wrote: “This may have convinced some [U.S.] officials that there was no imminent possibility of a test. It took the [National Security Council] press spokesman more than four hours to release a brief, formulaic statement criticizing the test. If Pyongyang was intent on deceiving the outside world about its plans, it succeeded brilliantly.”

David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: “It would not surprise me at all if North Korea was playing this game of knowing they were being watched and sending confusing signals to people watching them.”

Mr. Wright speculated that the North Koreans launched early to make it harder for U.S. and its regional allies to collect information about it. In addition, if the launch failed — as did a similar attempt in April — those countries would have less information about what went wrong, he added.

Mr. McDowell said: “If I were the North Koreans, I would be really happy even if the satellite totally dies. The fact that it’s in orbit is a huge achievement.”

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