North Korea’s successful launch of a three-stage rocket on Wednesday was a milestone for a pariah nation looking to flex its military might on the global stage, but experts are divided on how the new technological capability will serve Pyongyang in the near-term.
North Korea launched its second long-range rocket of the year at around 10:00 a.m. local time on Wednesday morning, claiming that it had successfully placed a satellite into orbit, according to official media.
Officials in South Korea and Japan confirmed that all three stages of the rocket appeared to have separated as scheduled on Wednesday, suggesting that the operation had gone as planned.
While Pyongyang maintains that its rocket launches are part of a “peaceful” space program, many countries seeking to end North Korea’s buildup of arms labeled the launch a test of a technology they believe could one day be capable of delivering a warhead as far as the continental U.S.
The launch drew global concern, with the U.S. condemning the launch as "provocative" and a breach of U.N. Security Council resolutions. North Korea is under U.N. sanctions which ban the nation from trading missiles or nuclear technology.
Japan's U.N. envoy called for an emergency Security Council meeting on Wednesday, but many believe further sanctions from the U.N. are unlikely as China, the North's only major ally, will oppose them.
In a briefing on Wednesday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Hong Lei stressed that North Korea "has the right to use outer space for peaceful purposes."
"China believes that the Council's response should be cautious and moderate in order to maintain peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and to avoid the escalation of the situation," he said.
Experts said that the successful launch had effectively sent a message to the rest of the world that North Korea’s military capabilities were not to be taken lightly.
Bruce Bechtol, a political science professor at Angelo State University in Texas, said North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had proceeded with the launch, despite global condemnation, in an effort to build the country’s market for arms proliferation.
“There are two reasons [the North Koreans launched the rocket]," he told RFA in an interview. "[The first] is so that they could prove that they have a three-stage ballistic missile that can hit the United States."
“The second reason may be the most important reason, and that is because once they have that capability, they will be able to proliferate it almost immediately for billions of dollars to Iran.”
He noted that Iran, which had successfully placed a satellite into orbit in 2009, is believed to have done so using a two-stage rocket and was likely to seek the newer three-stage technology from North Korea.
“They want three-stage technology. The North Koreans now have it. That’s why they were there,” he said, referring to reports that Iranian observers had been present for Wednesday’s launch and earlier lift-offs.
Iran has denied the reports.
Bechtol said that proceeds from such a sale of technology would likely go towards funding North Korea’s illicit nuclear weapons program and working to miniaturize a warhead small enough to be mounted atop the Unha-3, despite frequent food shortages and outdated infrastructure in the country.
“That’s a lot of money in North Korean coffers. And of course it’s tied to the nuclear program, because now that you have a missile that can reach the United States … the next thing will be the North Koreans—for a lot of money—hiring [it] out to the Iranians or being able to put that missile on a transporter or an erector launcher, or being able to put a nuclear payload on it,” he said.
“The Iranians will obviously need the North Koreans' help with all that. So in the long run this will mean billions of dollars for the North Koreans.”
Bechtol stressed that while North Korea is believed to be years away from fitting a nuclear warhead to the Unha—which is thought to be derived from the country’s Taepodong 2 ballistic missile—the new long-range rocket could be married with other forms of weaponry, making it an attractive technology.
“While a nuclear warhead would be very difficult to perfect and put on a Taepodong … that does not apply so much for chemical warhead,” he said.
Charles Vick, senior analyst for Globalsecurity.org, said that while the successful launch of a three-stage rocket had demonstrated a significant increase in the range of North Korean weaponry, the technology is too outdated to be effective in a conflict scenario.
“It’s sending a message that they are a power to be dealt with and that they want the proper respect and attention accordingly,” Vick said.
“The ultimate message is that they are continuing the defiance of the previous administration, constantly maintaining the same kind of military attitude towards the rest of the world as if they are a world unto themselves.”
But Vick said the launch vehicle was based on “very old technology” which is “entirely too large to be utilized as a strategic ballistic missile,” making it less attractive for proliferation.
Vick said that the size and time required to prepare the Unha-3 for liftoff makes it an easy target on the ground and noted that the rocket had never been launched from a covert facility, limiting its strategic use.
North Korea, which unsuccessfully attempted a rocket launch in April that is believed to have blown apart shortly after liftoff, has only used “space booster” launch sites to test rockets, Vick noted.
In addition to last April's rocket launch, North Korea fired long-range missiles in March 2009, July 2006, and August 1998.
“They are developing a strategic ballistic missile that could be a threat, but it certainly is not the Taepodong 2, which has clearly outgrown its capability to be applied as a strategic ballistic missile.”
Vick said that Iran already has access to much of the know-how required for the Taepodong 2 and might consider acquiring the rest through a trade, but doubted the country would seek to purchase the technology.
He said that the reported Iranian observers at the launch are more likely to have served as technical advisers than potential buyers.
But whether or not North Korea stands to benefit from weapons proliferation, the success of the launch still serves an important domestic purpose for the isolated regime, said Grigore Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
In addition to a show of power, Scarlatoiu suggested, Kim Jong Un may have been using Wednesday’s launch to solidify his power base after hastily assuming power last December following his father Kim Jong Il’s death from a heart attack.
“First and foremost, if you want a long-range missile program, you need to test these things every now and then…. Secondly, Kim Jong Un had had absolutely no accomplishments ever since he took over as leader of North Korea one year ago. This apparently successful long-range missile test is the first accomplishment of the Kim Jong Un regime,” Scarlatoiu said.
“Third, what was Kim Jong Il’s legacy? … He established their nuclear program. He tried hard to establish a long-range missile program as well. He failed. What the son is doing is following in the father’s footsteps to establish this other component of North Korea’s military capabilities, the long-range missile program,” he said.
“This is going to do him some good in terms of consolidating his relationship with the ruling elites of North Korea.”
The younger Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s, recently ordered a broad reshuffle of the military, which has led to widespread speculation of a possible power scramble in Pyongyang.
The recent purge, which Scarlatoiu called “unwise, even under North Korean standards,” is believed to have hurt Kim Jong Un’s standing among the higher-ups of North Korea’s powerful military.
The launch, he said, may have been a move of desperation by the young leader to buy himself some time at the helm.
“With great purges … comes great instability. And what this long-range missile test is going to do for Kim Jong Un is to stabilize his regime, at least over the short- to medium-term.”
Reported by Joshua Lipes.