(CNSNews.com) – If confirmed, North Korea’s claim to have successfully placed a satellite in orbit is a major technological achievement which – despite its declarations of peaceful intent – will advance its quest for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability, experts say.
If the object did “achieve orbit” – which the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) says appears likely – North Korea would be just the tenth country with the proven ability to do so (all are U.S. allies except for China, Russia, Iran and now North Korea).
Wednesday’s launch of a three-stage “Unha-3” rocket carrying an observation satellite drew condemnation from the U.S. and its Asian and European allies, as well as the U.N. Security Council.
In contrast, Iran congratulated Pyongyang on its reported success, while denying reports that it was involved in the North Korean program.
“History has shown that independent states can rapidly move on the path of progress and self-sufficiency in scientific and technological fields through self-belief if they resist and persist,” Iranian deputy chief of staff Brigadier General Massoud Jazzayeri told the Fars state news agency.
Iran itself put a satellite in orbit in 2009, further advancing its own rapidly-developing ballistic missile capability. The U.S. has for years charged that Iran and North Korea are collaborating in missile development, and weapons experts believe Iran’s series of Shahab rockets are likely variants of North Korea’s medium-range Nodong and long-range Taepodong-2 ballistic missiles.
The Unha carrier rocket launched Wednesday closely mirrors the Taepodong-2 and uses the same delivery system; the U.N. Security Council in a 2009 resolution prohibited North Korea from “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”
“While North Korea refers to this activity as a space launch, the technology and training employed in such an endeavor is similar to that needed for a nuclear-capable long-range missile,” the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California said Wednesday.
“In theory, a rocket like the Unha-3 could carry a nuclear payload of 1,000 kg up to 10,000 km [about 6,200 miles].”
The distance between the Korean peninsula and major West Coast population centers like Seattle and Los Angeles is in the range of 8,000-9,500 kilometers.
As long ago as Feb. 2005, then CIA director Porter Goss told U.S. lawmakers that North Korea was developing the long-range Taepodong-2 which, in the CIA’s assessment, “is capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear-weapon-sized payload.”
Goss said then that Pyongyang “could resume flight-testing at any time.” It did so the following July, again in 2009, and then twice this year – last April and on Wednesday – in the form of a satellite launch.
Despite North Korea’s claims to have succeeded in the past in achieving orbit, the latest launch is the first to evidently have done so after a string of previous failures.
Riki Ellison, chairman of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said the North Koreans had achieved a “fundamental breakthrough” after previous unsuccessful tests, “demonstrating the key critical elements” of ICBM technology.
“North Korea will now move towards a much easier technical challenge of creating a reentry vehicle that can withstand the heat, friction and high speeds to deliver a weapon from space through the atmosphere to detonate in the atmosphere or on the surface of the Earth,” he said in a statement.
“North Korea will also work at a much harder technical challenge to miniaturize its nuclear weapons to be placed on a future ICBM payload.”
Ellison said North Korea’s achievement, despite years of sanctions and in defiance of the U.S. and international community would be an encouragement to Iran.
He said the U.S. has invested in missile defense – centered on ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California – and “will need to continue to increase that investment to ensure our safety and defense of our citizens and homeland is as close to 100 percent as possible.”
“The North has crossed a major threshold in terms of mating an ICBM with a nuclear weapon,” said Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) scholar Victor Cha in a briefing. “They still have other technological thresholds to cross (miniaturized warheads, reentry vehicle), but this was undeniably a major one.”
Cha noted that although the White House issued a statement condemning the launch, President Obama had not himself spoken on the issue – either before or since the test.
“There has been an unspoken tendency in the United States to discount these tests as yet another foolish attempt by the technologically backward and bizarre country,” he said.
“This is no longer acceptable. The apparent success of this test makes North Korea one of the only non-allied countries outside of China and the Soviet Union to develop long-range missile technology that could potentially reach the United States.”
Gordon Chang, Asia specialist and author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World said North Korea’s “extraordinary feat of engineering” likely had both Iranian and Chinese help.
“The denials of Iranian involvement are laughable,” he told CNSNews.com. “There have been Iranian missile experts in North Korea for all four long-range launches Pyongyang has conducted. They have been there to learn and to buy the product.”
“Iran’s cash explains how the North, with a GDP of only $28 billion, can afford this extremely expensive effort,” Chang said, adding that the launch would have cost some $400 million.
North Korea’s last attempt, in April, failed dismally. Chang said “it’s not a stretch to think the Chinese provided some assistance to the North Koreans in fixing the problems that caused the catastrophic failure during the April launch.
It was time the U.S. stopped “entrust[ing] our security to others,” he said.
“Up to now, we have placed a higher priority on integrating China into the international system than on stopping North Korea,” he argued. “We have looked to China to rein in its ally of more than six decades.
“Yet as we tried to enlist Beijing as a partner, we have spent the only currency that really matters, time. Now, we have a year, maybe 18 months, before the North Koreans can land a nuclear warhead on American soil.”
North Korea’s foreign ministry shrugged off international condemnation, saying the launch was “part of peaceful work in line with the country’s scientific and technological development plan for the economic construction and improvement of people's living standard.”
“The right to use outer space for peaceful purposes is universally recognized by international law,” it said, in apparent reference to the Outer Space Treaty.