April 21, 2012 00:00 By William Choong
In his first public speech this week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un praised his father Kim Jong-il's "military first" policy.
He was speaking during celebrations to mark the 100th birthday of his late grandfather and North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung.
But the hard truth for the impoverished country is that the regime’s recent missteps have served only to aggravate its isolation.
Defying warnings from the global community, Pyongyang conducted its third satellite launch last Friday. The blast-off did get a big bang – albeit in the form of rocket debris crashing into the Yellow Sea after about two minutes of flight.
Food aid promised under a February 29 deal with the United States will be cut off, while the North is likely to see more censure from the United Nations.
More importantly, the public spectacle of Friday’s failure has led analysts to conclude that Pyongyang’s long-range missile programme, while worrying, is still a long way behind. Before Friday, North Korea had conducted two other satellite launches but both attempts – in 1998 and 2009 – failed to put the satellites into orbit.
Despite the latest setback, US officials remain cautious about the prospects of North Korea’s missile programme.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said that while the North’s recent track record is not good, the US is not “discounting the possibility of advancements in North Korean missile technology”.
Many analysts, however, are doubtful about Pyongyang’s ability to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that will pose a threat to the US.
The rocket's failure was a “step backwards” for Pyongyang, Mr Peter Crail, an analyst with the Arms Control Association, told Agence France-Presse. In 1998 and 2009, the first and second stages of the rocket separated successfully. Last week, the second stage failed to separate properly.
Poornima Subramaniam, an Asia-Pacific armed forces analyst at IHS Jane’s, said the failure suggests that North Korea has yet to master industrial processes such as systems integration and technologies like propulsion and altitude control.
Dr David Wright, a senior scientist at the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said the short flight time of the Unha-3 rocket means that North Korea will not be able to learn much from the Friday test.
“Without knowing what the problem is, it’s difficult to know whether it was a small, fixable defect or whether there is a bigger systemic problem of quality control or inferior workmanship. But it does not appear they are on the verge of having a working space launcher or long-range missile,” he said.
More importantly, last Friday’s failure will lead many to question recent American claims that North Korea is well on its way to attaining inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.
In a 2010 report, the US Defence Department said that North Korean ICBM development is “a somewhat uncertain work in progress”. But in January last year, then Defence Secretary Robert Gates told Chinese leaders that the North is “becoming a direct threat to the United States” on account of its development of nuclear weapons and ICBMs. While not “immediate”, he said, the threat will emerge in less than five years.
Wright doubts North Korea will achieve “real ICBM capability” without further tests. “Given that even a second test might take another several years, I don’t see how they would have a realistic ICBM capability in five years,” he said.
Professor Theodore Postol, an expert on science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees. North Korea's missiles have been built on “competent and indigenous” utilisation of foreign rocket components, mostly Russian in nature. But last Friday’s failure means that some manufacturing reliability problems have not been solved.
And even if such problems are solved, the North will need more time and tests to develop long-range missiles. This suggests that North Korea will not be able to manufacture long-range missiles with “some form of reliability for 10 years or more”, Postol said.
Such assessments about North Korea’s ICBM threat will have an impact on America’s own missile defence plans. Working with its allies in Asia and Europe, Washington’s missile defence enterprise is predicated on a growing ICBM threat from Iran and North Korea.
“The current levels of hysteria about the rapid growth in North Korea’s and/or Iran’s heavy-lift long-range rocket capabilities are unjustified,” said Postol.
If sceptics such as Wright and Postol are right, Washington’s grand missile defence plans for Asia and Europe will need some tweaking.