North Korea’s failed missile launch raises alarms
Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 13:04
WASHINGTON - The spectacular failure of a North Korean rocket, and the humiliation it presumably caused the nation’s young new leader, makes it likely the regime will soon test a nuclear device or take other provocative actions, according to U.S. officials and outside analysts.
The U.N. Security Council condemned North Korea for Friday’s launch, saying it violated two U.N. resolutions. And the White House said it would not honor a promise to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid to the impoverished nation.
President Barack Obama defended the decision to cancel U.S. humanitarian aid to a country that suffers perennial food shortages. His administration has not previously provided any aid to the country.
“They make all these investments, tens of millions of dollars, in rockets that don’t work at a time when their people are starving, literally, and so what we intend to do is work with the international community to further isolate North Korea,” Obama said in an interview with the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo.
“Obviously any opportunity for us to provide them food aid was contingent on them abiding by international rules and international norms,” the president said.
“So we will continue to keep the pressure on them, and they’ll continue to isolate themselves until they take a different path.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said the administration was “certainly concerned” about indications that North Korea was planning to follow the failed launch with an underground nuclear test, as it did after unsuccessful launches in 2006 and 2009.
Experts say satellite imagery of North Korea’s northeast Punggye-ri site, where previous nuclear tests were conducted, shows deep tunneling, and other preparations may be under way for a third nuclear test, possibly based on the country’s yet-unproven highly enriched uranium program.
“A nuclear test next month is a virtual certainty,” said Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the nonpartisan Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
He said the government in Pyongyang suffered “tremendous humiliation” with the failure of the rocket launch, which was meant to celebrate the centennial of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Noland predicted that the regime would try to recoup its credibility, at home and abroad, by testing a nuclear device.
Some analysts warned that the widespread opprobrium risked isolating any voices of reason in Pyongyang and might embolden hard-liners to dig in even more.
“It’s hard to know whether the international reaction leads them to feel like they’re just going to proceed with the nuclear test they’ve been preparing,” said David Wright, an arms control expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit research group. “If it does, it’s going to be very difficult to make progress for a number of years.”
U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe North Korea has built as many as eight plutonium-based nuclear bombs. In 2010, the government revealed a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon that, in theory, could produce weapons-grade fuel for a much larger arsenal.
North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, but it was only partly successful. A second test in 2009 was deemed a greater success.
The regime tested long-range missiles in 1998, 2006 and 2009. All of them exploded in flight, although the last flew 2,500 miles before breaking up.
U.S. intelligence officials had predicted that North Korean missiles could threaten the continental United States by 2015. The latest setback suggests that time frame is now unlikely, experts said.
The Unha-3 missile launched Friday had a slightly larger third stage than the last version that failed, U.S. officials said. This one exploded 90 seconds after blastoff, rising about 75 miles into the atmosphere before breaking into pieces, which fell into the ocean.
North Korea said it was trying to put a civilian weather satellite into orbit, but U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials said the missile had military applications and, if successful, could be reconfigured to someday carry a nuclear payload.
“North Korea has successfully launched shorter-range Scud and Nodong missiles that were successful, but long-range missile success continues to elude them,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.
North Korea, which strictly controls state media, told its citizens after the 2009 rocket failure that it had successfully put a small satellite into orbit and that it was broadcasting patriotic songs.
This time, the regime invited foreign journalists into the country to help publicize the launch. On Friday, a state broadcaster announced that the rocket had failed.