Are fears over North Korean rocket launch warranted?

North Korea has announced plans to deliver an Earth observation satellite into orbit sometime in February, stoking concerns that the nation may actually preparing to test a ballistic missile.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
An image depicting the 2009 satellite rocket launch is displayed at the Three Revolutions Exhibition Hall in Pyongyang, North Korea, April 10, 2012. The Unha 3 rocket that launched the 'Bright Star' satellite into space in 2012 is a symbol of North Korea’s technological successes and a matter of great national pride. The country plans another launch to put Earth observation satellite into orbit in February, 2016. Although the equipment it will use is not yet known, the launch could also advance its military-use missile technology further.

As concerns grow over North Korea’s imminent rocket launch, experts say the test may ultimately contribute little to the country’s ability to develop military-use missiles. 

The ostensible purpose of the launch, which the North said would occur between Feb. 8 and 25, is to put an Earth observation satellite into orbit. Yet the United States says it’s really just a cover for a ballistic missile test following the North’s detonation of what it claimed was its first hydrogen bomb last month.

The launch has been strongly denounced by North Korea's neighbors, including China and Russia, as well as by the US, and the United Nations secretary general. Japan and South Korea aren’t taking any chances. Both countries have deployed military defense systems to shoot down any incoming rocket debris.

But experts say the North's rockets look a lot more like what it says they are: space launch vehicles. If that’s the case, Pyongyang isn’t necessarily that much closer to having a reliable, long-range missile capable of dropping a nuclear weapon on the United States any time soon.

"What is needed now is a sober, serious, and reasonable public assessment of the threat from North Korea," Ted Postol, a professor of science, technology, and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the Associated Press.

The distinction between a rocket used to lift a satellite into space and an intercontinental ballistic missile is highly technical. Markus Schiller, a prominent expert on North Korean missile, say the former is of limited contribution to the latter.

"A real ICBM is a weapon system that has to hit a given target on the other side of the world, being launched at any condition with the push of a button almost instantly," he told AP. "Just launching a small satellite carrier every other year, which uses different technology than required for a real ICBM, does not get you much closer to this goal."

Of course none of this means the threat of North Korea developing long-range ballistic missiles isn’t real. But David Wright, co-director and senior scientist with the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, warned against dismissing Pyongyang's space launches as mere smoke screens. 

"While launching satellites helps North Korea learn about rocket technology, I think its desire to launch satellites is real," he told AP. "This is partly for prestige, and it was of course a huge deal that it put something into orbit before South Korea.”

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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