As the US and its allies criticize North Korea’s planned rocket launch, they are also rushing to capitalize on the rare opportunity it presents to assess Pyongyang’s ability to strike beyond its shores.
If North Korea goes ahead with the launch, expected to take place sometime between April 12 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 at 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,” he added.
North Korea has said 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, 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.
If 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.
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.
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.
North Korea launched its first -Taepodong-2 in 2006 and it exploded just 40 seconds after liftoff.
A follow up attempt in 2009 got off the launch pad and successfully completed a tricky pitching maneuver, but analysts believe its third stage failed to separate properly, sending it and the satellite it carried into the Pacific.
In an analysis of the 2009 launch, physicists David Wright and Theodore Postol of the Union of Concerned Scientists suggested North Korea relied heavily on a stockpile of foreign components, likely from Russia. If data from the upcoming launch confirms that, it could mean that Pyongyang’s missile program is severely limited by the nation’s ability to procure new parts from abroad.