As the US and its allies decry North Korea’s planned rocket launch, they are also 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 sometime between Thursday and April 16, the US, 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 impact 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 expert 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.”
SATELLITE OR MISSILE?
One thing analysts could quickly put to the test 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 a quick 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 Ocean, rather than the easterly path it chose for a launch in 2009 that sent a 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. However, the launch could also have military implications.
In North Korea were to attack the US, Michishita said, it would likely launch to the north. It cannot 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 its 2009 launch, the 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 US.
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 it 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 would likely require another nuclear test, which North Korea has not done since 2009.
The launcher itself is another issue — and it has a history of failure.
The Unha-3 rocket that will be used in the launch 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.