Some Experts Say Satellite or Not, N. Korea Is Thinking Weapons

Astronomers and technical analysts say they will soon know whether what North Korea called a satellite launch was a success. Whether Pyongyang actually succeeds in putting a satellite into orbit, scientists say the North has taken a significant step forward in its ability to threaten neighbors other countries with missiles.

The United States military refuted North Korea's assertion Sunday that it had launched a "communications satellite" into orbit.

The U.S. Northern Command issued a statement saying "no object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan." The satellite payload intended for space landed in the Pacific Ocean, say U.S. officers.

South Korean media quote Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee as telling parliamentary leaders the satellite failed to reach space.

North Korean media, however, portrayed the launch in different terms Sunday:

A North Korean newsreader triumphantly announced the satellite is in orbit - transmitting revolutionary songs about leaders Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.

Joseph Bermudez is a leading world expert on North Korean rocketry for the British-based Jane's Defense Group. He says, regardless of the fate of the satellite, the first and second stages of Sunday's launch were noteworthy.

"It demonstrates that they were successful in staging and ground control, guidance, and a number of other technical issues," he said.

Bermudez says those first two stages of the launch will truly benefit the North Koreans, if they were able to capture all the real-time data the rocket produced moment-by-moment in its flight.

"It will tell them exactly what was happening on the system as it launched, and whether their calculations are correct. About speed, altitude, pressure, the health of the system, how much fuel is being used," added Bermudez, "that sort of information."

Ivan Oelrich, the Vice President of the Strategic Security Program at the Federation of American Scientists, says even if the satellite did not reach space, Sunday's launch is, in his words "a bad development." He says it is especially alarming in the context of Pyongyang's 2006 nuclear weapons test.

"There's no one that seriously believes that North Korea is interested in a low earth orbit communications satellite," said Oelrich. "This is a way for them to test a long-range rocket that has military applications."

Oelrich says North Korea does not need to develop its missile program to the same extent as more advanced countries, in order to benefit from it.

"The North Koreans probably don't want it for a normal kind of military deployment. They want to have one or two of these - perhaps armed with nuclear weapons," he said. "At least they want the world to believe that, that they can use for political leverage in the future."

Daniel Pinkston, a senior analyst in Seoul for the International Crisis Group, says with all the sacrifices impoverished North Korea has made for rocket technology, it has only one thing on its mind.

"The expense to deliver an object at that distance, or to put together a missile, it's at an extraordinary cost," he said. "It makes no sense whatsoever to invest the effort, the energy, the resources into such a long-range delivery system unless it carries the destructive power of a nuclear weapon."

Experts say the technical challenge of mounting a nuclear warhead on a missile and delivering it accurately remains well in the future for North Korea. However, they warn the time to be concerned about that future is now.

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