SEOUL » After 14 years of painstaking labor, North Korea finally has a rocket that can put a satellite in orbit. But that doesn’t mean the reclusive country is close to having an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Experts say Pyongyang is years from even having a shot at developing reliable missiles that could bombard the American mainland and other distant targets, though it did gain attention and the outrage of world leaders Wednesday with its first successful launch of a three-stage, long-range rocket.
A missile program is built on decades of systematic, intricate testing, something extremely difficult for economically struggling Pyongyang, which faces guaranteed sanctions and world disapproval each time it stages an expensive launch. North Korea will need larger and more dependable missiles, and more advanced nuclear weapons, to threaten U.S. shores, though it already poses a threat to its neighbors.
"One success indicates progress but not victory, and there is a huge gap between being able to make a system work once and having a system that is reliable enough to be militarily useful," said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force Space Command officer and a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, a think tank on space policy.
North Korea’s satellite launch came only after repeated failures and hundreds of millions of dollars. It is an achievement for young leader Kim Jong Un, whose late father, Kim Jong Il, made development of missiles and nuclear weapons a priority despite international opposition and his nation’s poverty.
Kim said the achievement "further consolidated" the country’s status "as a space power," the government’s official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday. It added that Kim "stressed the need to continue to launch satellites in the future."
Though Pyongyang insists the project is peaceful, it also has conducted two nuclear tests and has defied international demands that it give up its nuclear weapons program.
A senior U.S. official said the satellite is tumbling in orbit and not acting as it should, but the official said that doesn’t necessarily mean it is out of control. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the important takeaway is that North Korea was able to successfully execute all three stages of the missile launch and get the satellite into space.
North Korea has long possessed the components needed to construct long-range rockets. Scientists in Pyongyang, however, had been trying and failing since 1998 to conduct a successful launch. Only this week — their fifth try — did they do so, prompting dancing in the streets of the capital.
Each advancement Pyongyang makes causes worry in Washington and among North Korea’s neighbors. In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that within five years the North could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.
Wednesday’s launch suggests the North is on track for that, said former U.S. defense official James Schoff, now an expert on East Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But he and other experts say the North must still surmount tough technical barriers to build the ultimate military threat: a sophisticated nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile, something experts say will be the focus of future nuclear tests.
And despite Wednesday’s launch, Pyongyang is also lacking the other key part of that equation: a reliable long-range missile.
"If in the future they develop a nuclear warhead small enough to put on a rocket, they are not going to want to put that on a missile that has a high probability of exploding on the launch pad," said David Wright, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who has written extensively about North Korea.
To create a credible missile program, experts say, North Korean technicians need to conduct many more tests that will allow them to iron out the wrinkles until they have a reliable missile.
North Korea must build a larger missile than the one launched Wednesday if it wants to be able to send nuclear weapons to distant targets, analysts said.
Other missing parts of the puzzle include an accurate long-range missile guidance system and a re-entry vehicle able to survive coming back into the atmosphere at the high speeds traveled by intercontinental ballistic missiles, said Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Massachusetts.
Both are seen as being years off.
The world’s "ICBM club" has just four countries: the U.S., Russia, China and France, said Markus Schiller, an analyst with Schmucker Technologie in Germany and a leading expert on North Korean missiles.
If North Korea "really intended to become a player in the ICBM game, they would have to develop a different kind of missile, with higher performance," Schiller said.
Wright said the Unha-3 rocket launched Wednesday has a potential range of 4,970 to 6,210 miles, which could put Hawaii and the northwest coast of the mainland within range.
Money is another problem for Pyongyang. A weak economy, chronic food shortages and the sanctions make it difficult to sustain a program that can build and operate reliable missiles.
Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, said Pyongyang’s recent launch was a negotiating chip, not an immediate threat. He said it was intended to stoke tensions abroad to improve Pyongyang’s position in future negotiations.