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Does N. Korea's Taepodong-2 Ballistic Missile Pose a Serious Threat?

April 5 Launch of Missile Considered a Provocative Act

April 5th 2009, North Korea launched a long range ballistic missile, considered by many Western countries as a provocative act. In this report from Washington we look at whether the missile poses a threat to the United States and other countries.

The North Korean missile is called the Taepodong-2. Analysts say little is known about it. They say theoretically the three-stage rocket has a range of between 3,600 and 4,300 kilometers, making it capable of reaching the western United States.

North Korea described the April test as a success, saying the missile launched a communications satellite into orbit. However Western officials said it was a failure, with the last two stages falling far short of Pyongyang's expectations.

Paul Carroll is a North Korea and nuclear expert with the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, an organization that supports initiatives to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons. He says while technically the launch was a failure, it did accomplish something.

"From a political point of view, it was a success in terms of getting the world's attention, getting the U.S.'s attention," said Paul Carroll. "It certainly was a provocative and a sort of 'hey look at me' kind of exercise."

Analysts not Sure How Many Nuclear Weapons Pyongyang Possesses

Analysts believe North Korea has a long way to go before it perfects the Taepodong-2 and makes it a reliable missile to carry either a satellite or a nuclear warhead. Experts say it is difficult to know how many nuclear weapons Pyongyang possesses - estimates vary from six to 12.

Jim Walsh, a nuclear and North Korea expert with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology [MIT], says miniaturizing a nuclear device and placing it on top of a three-stage rocket is the most difficult technological feat in the nuclear age," said Walsh.

"It's relatively simple to build - comparatively relatively simple to build a nuclear weapon because most first stage, early stage nuclear weapons are quite large and it's a pretty straightforward engineering task. But miniaturizing that nuclear weapon and then putting it on a missile and launching that missile and having 100 percent certainty that missile is supposed to go where you're aiming it and is not going to blow up over your own country - that's quite a technological feat."

Walsh says extremely sophisticated components go into a miniaturized nuclear warhead sitting atop a long range ballistic missile.

"And that's why when you look at the history of the nuclear age, all the countries that have nuclear weapons - the U.S., France, China, Russia, whoever you can point to - they first built a nuclear weapon and then it was years and years and years before they were able to mount one on a missile," he said. "And some nuclear weapon states - I think of India and Pakistan, for example - it's still unclear whether they have that capability. So - in the nuclear world, it's the hardest thing you can do and I don't expect North Korea to be able to do it for quite some time - if ever."

While most analysts believe North Korea's Taepodong-2 missile does not - at this stage - pose a serious threat, many analysts are concerned about one aspect of Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

David Kay is the former chief nuclear weapons inspector with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"If I had to ask what I worry about, it's not North Korea using its nuclear weapons or missiles against South Korea, the United States or Japan," said Kay. "It's the transfer of that technology to others, particularly the Iranians. North Korea has sold and traded every weapon it's ever been able to produce with others. It's the main supplier to the Iranians of missile technology. And the Iranians are quite capable of improving, with foreign assistance, whatever they get from North Korea, they've shown that they can do this. So you do worry about their missiles being improved by the Iranians."

The whole issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program - and what to do to curtail it - is the subject of the six-party talks bringing together the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea.

But Pyongyang left those negotiations after international condemnation of its April launch of the Taepodong-2 long range ballistic missile. Analysts say it is essential for those talks to resume in order to keep a close watch on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons aspirations.