14:22 15 February 2016
OPINION: Time to face the facts on North Korea's rockets
By Gregory Kulacki
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 14, Kyodo
North Korea has been developing rockets -- both satellite launchers and ballistic missiles -- for more than 25 years. The United States has lots of sensors -- on satellites, in the air, and on the ground and sea -- that have observed every launch. U.S. officials quickly confirmed that on Feb. 7 North Korea launched a satellite.
Even though this was not a ballistic missile test, the two types of rockets use the same basic technology. The three-stage Unha-3 rocket that launched the satellite could be modified to carry a nuclear weapon. If North Korea could reduce the total mass of a nuclear weapon and reentry heat shield to about 500 kilograms, a modified Unha-3 might be able to deliver its payload to large parts of the continental United States. Experts continue to debate how long that might take. And North Korea has yet to test a reentry heat shield for a long-range missile.
North Korea appears determined to continue missile research, development and testing despite international condemnation and sanctions. This satellite launch confirms it continues to make slow but steady progress. Given enough time and the necessary technological inputs, North Korea could eventually produce a ballistic missile that can deliver a nuclear weapon to the continental United States.
It is unclear whether this capability would alter the current military situation.
Neither South Korea nor Japan has threatened to invade North Korea or depose its government. William Perry, when serving as the U.S. secretary of defense during the Clinton administration, told the North Korean government its conventional military capabilities were more than enough to deter the United States from attacking the North. So having a long-range ballistic missile that can carry a nuclear warhead adds little additional deterrent value. In fact, an eventual North Korean attempt to deploy nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles could invite U.S. pre-emption, making North Korea less safe from U.S. attack than it is without them.
Any North Korean attempt to use its nuclear capability against the United States would be an act of national suicide. No new U.S. nuclear weapons or deployments are needed to improve what is already an extremely lopsided balance of forces. Indeed, the United States could substantially reduce its nuclear arsenal without diminishing its ability to destroy the North Korean regime. For that reason, any North Korean threat to use nuclear weapons against the United States would be an empty one.
Convincing North Korean leaders their interests would be better served by abandoning their effort to acquire a nuclear capability requires dialog. Agreeing to talk, without preconditions, is not a capitulation or a reward. Dialog can help the United States, its allies and the international community just as much as it could help the North Koreans. There is no guarantee of success, of course, but there is also little left to lose if dialog fails. Neither past nor present approaches stopped North Korea from developing and testing nuclear weapons and the rockets that can deliver them.
(Gregory Kulacki is China project manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists.)