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Mysteries swirl around North Korea's satellite launch (+video)

The US believes North Korea's satellite is out of control, but the South Koreans insist that it is functioning normally.

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“The problem,” says Mr. Eberstadt, a prolific author of studies on North Korea, “is we don't have anything to offer that they really want – apart from South Korea.”

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However, according to experts visiting Seoul for a conference of the Asan Institute here, the North Koreans may not be all that advanced in their program, even though the three-stage rocket has a theoretical range of about 7,500 miles – enough to carry a warhead as far as the US West Coast.

Vassily Mikheev, from Russia’s Institute for World Economy and International Relations, says the reliance on old technology means the launch is “a failure.” Mr. Mikheev, at the Asan conference, says the Scud technology is “for small missiles” – and therefore not reliable when they’re bundled in three distinct stages.

“There will be discussion on how successful the launch was,” he says. “The Americans exaggerate to get funding for their own antimissile system.”

Douglas Paal at the Carnegie Endowment disputes that view. “The US has a genuine and reasonable concern that North Korea on its own may be able to threaten its neighbors,” he says. North Korea, he says, “has a nuclear capability.”

Though China is clearly the country with the greatest influence over Pyongyang, Mr. Lee at the Fletcher School doubts if China can stop North Korea from pressing ahead with its missile and nuclear programs.

 “North Korea has never caved into Chinese pressure,” he says.

“Watch out,” he advises, "for a follow-up provocation soon – in the next day or two" in the run-up to the first anniversary on Dec. 17 of the death of leader Kim Jong-il and South Korea’s presidential election two days later.

South Korean officials say they now are planning to bolster their antimissile system in view of the threat posed by North Korea, which purportedly has scores of mid and short-range missiles capable of easily striking all the Korean peninsula and Japan as well.

In the meantime, South Korean warships are scouring the Yellow Sea for debris from the first stage of the North Korean rocket that plummeted southwest of the Korean peninsula two minutes and 36 seconds after liftoff.

So far they’ve spotted a fuel canister that divers are trying to recover from a depth of about 250 feet.  The North Koreans, says the defense ministry spokesman, are not going to get it back.

"We are not obligated to return it,” he says, since it’s “an enemy's weapon.”

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