WASHINGTON - Just a few days ago, North Korea triggered an international furor when it conducted several ballistic missile tests. This Report looks at whether the largest missile tested - the Taepodong-2 - poses a serious threat to the United States and other countries.
On July 4 - America’s Independence Day - North Korea test launched several missiles. Most of them were of the short and medium-range variety - but one of them was a long-range ballistic missile known as the Taepodong-2.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman told reporters that missile failed after less than a minute of flight.
“The Taepodong-2, the missile that had been watched for some time, that we have been talking about for the past couple of weeks, appears to have failed on its own in the early stages of its launch - and also went into the Sea of Japan, along with the rest of the short-to-medium range missiles,” Whitman said.
The North Korean test launches brought international condemnation. NATO expressed its “grave concern” and U.S. officials described the move as “a provocation.”
The worry articulated by foreign governments stems from the test launch of the Taepodong-2. Analysts say very little is known about the missile and that is why North Korea decided to launch it to see how it performs. Experts say it is a two to three stage ballistic missile estimated to have a range between 3,600 and 4,300 kilometers.
Jim Walsh is a security and nuclear weapons expert with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has traveled to North Korea over the years.
“There is a lot more hype than there is fact surrounding it,” he said. “You often get reported the notion that this missile could reach the United States: Alaska or the west coast. I think this is completely overblown. Building an intercontinental ballistic missile is, arguably, the most difficult engineering feat you can take on - more difficult than building a nuclear weapon. Countries that built nuclear weapons, built nuclear weapons before they were ever able to build an ICBM, because it is much more difficult. And it requires lots of testing. But North Korea has only conducted two tests in eight years.”
The last test on July 4, Walsh agrees, was a failure.
“But even if it had succeeded, let me assure you, two tests do not a missile system make,” Walsh said. “You don’t want to fire one of those things up there, have it come back down and land on your territory. They require a high degree of reliability and to accomplish that you need lots of testing - and so I think they are really at a very crude stage.”
Walsh believes the North Koreans have a long way to go before they perfect the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.
Experts say even if Pyongyang perfects such a system, the North Koreans face other obstacles.
“There are other technical difficulties with a system of this kind that relate, really, to what kind of a payload it can carry over what distance? And there you get into questions about whether North Korea has really mastered the kinds of technologies that would allow it to produce a miniaturized [nuclear] warhead that wasn’t very heavy and not very large - and being miniaturized, would give the missile a greater length and trajectory,” said Adam Ward, an Asian security expert with the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Experts, including Ward and Walsh, do not believe that North Korea has the capacity right now to build such a warhead.
Adam Ward says the international community must seriously address North Korea’s missile test - but at the same time wait and see what Pyongyang will do next.
“The question now is whether this test is a one-off or whether it marked the beginning of a concerted and more determined effort to try and overcome some of the problems that obviously they have encountered,” he said. “And the question there is what kind of resources are they likely to invest in that effort if it is going to be a sustained campaign of testing and technological surveys - and whether they in fact intend to plow those resources in, given that the international diplomatic reaction is going to be very severe to a sustained campaign of testing.”
North Korea has already announced that it will conduct more missile tests to enhance what it calls its “self-defensive deterrent.” But Pyongyang did not say when those tests will take place.