Rocket Launch Shows North Korea's Advance


Rocket Launch Shows North Korea's Advance

Wall Street Journal


December 13, 2012    (page A13)

WASHINGTON—North Korea appears to have turned a corner in its goal of achieving mastery of ballistic missiles, U.S. officials and weapons experts said following its successful rocket launch Wednesday, adding to pressure on the Obama administration to contain Pyongyang's arsenal.

A particular concern for U.S. officials is that Iran, which also is developing a nuclear program and long-range missiles, could take heart from its Asian ally's success and accelerate what the West suspects is a goal of developing a warhead. Pyongyang and Tehran have closely cooperated in developing missile systems for more than two decades, according to U.S. and Asian officials.

"Nothing that we're doing now in terms of sanctions or diplomacy or anything has stopped [Pyongyang]," said Victor Cha, who served as a top adviser on North Korea to President George W. Bush. "Counterproliferation now becomes much more important."

The United Nations Security Council condemned the North's launch of a three-stage rocket that Pyongyang claimed had placed a weather satellite into orbit. The launch appeared to be North Korea's first breakthrough following four largely unsuccessful tries since 1998.

U.S. officials said they believed the launch was cover for North Korea to further develop long-range missiles that could eventually carry nuclear warheads capable of threatening Washington's allies in Asia, and, potentially, the U.S. west coast.

Pyongyang has conducted two nuclear tests over the past decade and, U.S. intelligence agencies estimate it has produced enough fissile material for as many as a dozen atomic bombs.

Officials are still assessing whether the object carried by the rocket achieved a stable orbit. Some U.S. officials described the satellite as slipping out of North Korea's control. But making a final determination will take days, according to an official at the U.S. Strategic Command, which is tracking the object. Should Pyongyang indeed lose control at times it could still reestablish it, the official said.

"I am not prepared to agree to the characterization of it being a stunning success by any means," said a U.S. official. "We are still assessing it, and I am not sure that [success] is where we are going to end up."

On Thursday, South Korea's defense ministry said the North's satellite appeared to be orbiting normally. The satellite was flying at about 5 miles per second, ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters in Seoul, but he added it hadn't been determined whether it was performing its stated function as a survey and communication satellite.

Regardless of the satellite's fate, the missile technology that placed it into orbit demonstrates a new level of sophistication.

North Korea conducts its second rocket launch of the year in an apparent step forward in its push to develop long-range missile capabilities. The WSJ's Evan Ramstad explains the ramifications of a successful launch. Photo: AP

The North Korean launch showed that Pyongyang has been able to correct earlier problems with multistage rockets, said Henry "Trey" Obering III, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and the former head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. "They are a major step closer to having an ability to threaten the continental United States."

The launch violated U.N. Security Council resolutions banning North Korean missile activity. U.S. and European officials said Wednesday that they would seek to use a new Security Council resolution to enact tougher financial sanctions on North Korean leaders and companies. They also said they would work to develop ways to more intrusively contain the spread of sophisticated weapons in and out of the secluded state.

The Security Council "must now work in a concerted fashion to send North Korea a clear message that its violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions have consequences," said the Obama administration's ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice.

Still, critics of successive U.S. administrations said international sanctions and diplomacy have done little to prevent North Korea from steadily developing a nuclear weapons arsenal over the past three decades.

They said the White House should move more aggressively to establish a missile-defense system in Asia to defend allies such as Japan and South Korea.

Some also said that the U.S. must be prepared to heighten covert actions against Pyongyang, including sabotage and air and maritime interdictions, to prevent it from mastering the technologies needed to place a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile.

Current and former U.S. officials are worried that the North's advances could fuel a further arms race in Northeast Asia. Japan is already seen as having a latent nuclear-weapons capability. South Korea is developing long-range missiles and has a vast civilian nuclear-power program that could be converted to military use.

These officials are also concerned that North Korea would be willing to export its nuclear-weapons technologies to networks of buyers in the Middle East and Asia.

State media distributed an image, right, from the control center's monitors.

Pyongyang has regularly exported missile technologies to Iran, Syria and Myanmar, according to U.S. and Asian officials. U.N. nuclear inspectors believe the North secretly built a nuclear reactor in eastern Syria that was destroyed by Israeli jets in 2007.

U.S. and allied intelligence services have intercepted shipments of North Korean missile components going into all three countries in recent months, according to U.S. and Asian diplomats. "North Korea has proven that it's willing to sell anything to anyone. They need the hard currency," said David Asher, who has tracked Pyongyang's arms trade both at the State Department and the Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank.

U.S. officials particularly worry that China could impede any efforts at the U.N. to choke off North Korea's weapons development.

Beijing has supported international diplomacy focused on containing North Korea's nuclear program, called the six-party talks. It has backed some previous U.N. resolutions sanctioning North Korean military officers and arms companies.

But China continues to provide significant financial assistance to Pyongyang and its new leader, Kim Jong Eun. And North Korea companies have used China as a base through which to procure and sell arms equipment, according to U.S. and Asian officials.

This week's launch, said Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Mich.), chairman of the House intelligence committee, should be a "wake-up call" to change U.S. policy toward North Korea. North Korea has already shared its nuclear and missile technology, and will spread long-range missile expertise as well, he said. "That's what makes this so dangerous," Mr. Rogers said. He said the Obama administration should press China to head off a nuclearized Korean peninsula.

The rocket launch, which occurred Tuesday night U.S. time, was monitored by American and Japanese military officials.

U.S. officials said the Pentagon didn't attempt to intercept the rocket with missile-defense systems because it was never assessed to be a direct threat.

The Japanese also have missile-interception capabilities, officials said, but they decided the rocket didn't pose a direct threat to Japan, either.

—Evan Ramstad, Dion Nissenbaum, Joe Lauria and Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article