North Korea Launches Rocket

On Sunday, North Korea launched a rocket in defiance of the international community and in violation of a 2006 UN Security Council resolution banning the pariah state from using ballistic missile technology.  The North Koreans claimed the launch was an attempt to put a satellite into orbit.  If that was their intention then the effort clearly failed because the rocket crashed into the Pacific Ocean approximately 2,000 miles from the launch site before any satellite was released.  However, many American and foreign officials believe that North Korea was really conducting a ballistic missile test.


On March 29, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said “I don’t know anyone at the senior level of American government who does not believe this technology is intended as a mask for the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).”


American political and military leaders have expressed concern that North Korea will soon be capable of hitting the west coast of the US with an ICBM tipped with a nuclear warhead.  In 2006, the DPRK conducted what it claimed to be a successful underground test of a nuclear device, although there is uncertainty as to whether the claim is valid.  The estimated yield of the device was one kiloton, which is much smaller than the four kiloton yield the North Koreans anticipated in discussions with the Chinese government before the test occurred.  Conventional high explosives can create a one kiloton blast, and some speculated that the communist state might have used them to feign a nuclear test.  However, airborne radioactive isotopes were later detected near the test site by US intelligence agencies, which led some to believe the North Korean claims.  Others suggested that North Korea was trying to test a nuclear weapon, but the device “fizzled,” which means that the design did not function properly.


Although American and allied governments have expressed alarm over North Korea’s attempts to develop strategic weapons, it is unclear if the DPRK will be capable of building effective ICBMs or nuclear weapons anytime in the short-to-medium term.  The Taepodong-2, the type of missile launched on Sunday, is supposed to have a range of 4,200 miles, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry, but it has never flown beyond 2,000 miles.  As noted, there is strong reason to doubt that the North Koreans have ever successfully tested an atomic bomb.  Even if the communist nation were able to engineer strategic weapons according to their designs, it might not be able to merge the two technologies and deploy ICBMs that could accurately deliver operative nuclear warhead to faraway cities in places like the western US.  Therefore, there is good reason not to be as fearful of North Korea’s weapons programs as many officials appear to be.


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