By Peter Crail and Daryl G. Kimball
Today, the leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) followed through with their plan to conduct a long-range ballistic missile test, which failed, according to early assessments.
The DPRK claimed the missile launch was intended to put a satellite in space, but many of the technologies used for that purpose also help North Korea further develop a long-range missile capability, which is was probably the DPRK’s real aim.
Though it was apparently unsuccessful, the missile launch is a clear violation of the UN Security Council demand that North Korea not conduct “any launch using ballistic missile technology.” It is also a violation of the DPRK’s pledge — announced February 29 — not to conduct further long-range ballistic missile tests, not to conduct further nuclear tests, and not to enrich uranium at its Yongbyon complex. Pyongyang had every reason to know that the launch violated the February 29 deal and would draw international condemnation.
This is not the first North Korean long-range missile test, nor the first failure. The DPRK has carried out three previous long-range rocket launches, all of which failed. All of those earlier tests are believed to have had different missile systems.
- 1998: Taepodong 1—third stage failed
- 2006: Taepodong 2—failed after 40 seconds
- 2009: Taepodong 2/Unha 2—third stage failed
This is the first time that North Korea is re-testing a long-range rocket it launched before. The Unha-3 that North Korea launched looks very much like the Unha-2 it launched in 2009.
While North Korea probably cannot miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit on its missiles yet, a third nuclear test would allow them to make significant progress in that direction.
Now the governments of the United States, China, and other leading nations must focus on the task of preventing North Korea from conducting another nuclear weapon test explosion.
In 2006 and 2009 we saw a cycle of escalation in which North Korea launched a long-range rocket, which drew international rebuke, and then North Korea responded with a nuclear test explosion.
One long-range ballistic missile test launch is a problem. A ballistic missile test launch followed by another nuclear test explosion, followed by accelerated uranium enrichment activities, is a much more significant problem.
As soon as Friday — when the UN Security Council will convene to take up the issue of the missile launch — it will be important to find a balance between demonstrating to Pyongyang’s new leader that he cannot flaunt international rules with impunity, while ensuring that tensions do not once again increase toward further nuclear and missile tests and other military provocations against South Korea and the international community.