There has been an on going narrative being created in the media that North Korea’s missile test was a failure because the North Koreans did not put a satellite into orbit.
North Korea failed in its highly vaunted effort to fire a satellite into orbit, military and private experts said Sunday after reviewing detailed tracking data that showed the missile and payload fell into the sea. Some said the failure undercut the North Korean campaign to come across as a fearsome adversary able to hurl deadly warheads halfway around the globe. [NY Times]
This narrative completely misses the fact that the North Koreans probably had no intention of putting a satellite into orbit in the first place and used it as cover to complete a long range missile test of the Taepodong-2 missile. Additionally the North Koreans fired the missile for more then just missile test reasons, it also had much domestic as well as political reasons to fire the missile as well.
#1 The Missile Landed Near Where North Korea Said It Would
Via Arms Control Wonk comes this Google Earth image that shows where the two boosters of the Taepodong-2 landed as well as the area expected to have been the impact area of the missile’s payload:
If you go on Google Earth and check the distance of this launch you will see the impact area is roughly 2,000 - 2,300 miles from the launch site. This impact area is exactly where North Korea said debris would fall to prior to the test. Here is the Google Earth image from NK Econ Watch that I posted two weeks ago that shows where North Korea said the debris would fall:
This is evidence that the North Koreans had already had a pre-planned range limit for the test and never intended to fire the missile any further then this impact point. The fact that the pre-planned and actual impact points are in the same general area could mean that the North Koreans were testing the accuracy of the Taepodong-2 instead of trying to see how far they could fire it.
#2 This was North Korea’s Longest Range Missile Test Yet
According to South Korean authorities this test of the Taepodong-2 was North Korea’s longest missile test yet:
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service described it as a successful rocket test but a failed satellite launch, according to lawmakers who attended a closed-door briefing of parliament’s intelligence committee.
Chae Yeon-Seok of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute said that while the rocket apparently failed, it flew much farther than in 1998.
He called it “a big step forward in the North’s rocket technology.” [AFP]
The South Koreans are not the only ones saying that this was a successful missile test:
But U.S. and South Korean officials claim the entire rocket, including whatever payload it carried, ended up in the ocean after Sunday’s launch. South Korean officials said the rocket’s second stage landed in waters about 1,900 miles (3,100 kilometers) from the northeastern North Korean launch site.
That is double the distance a rocket managed in 1998 and far better than a 2006 launch of a long-range missile that fizzled just 42 seconds after liftoff. Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Mongolia and many parts of China now are within striking range, but Anchorage, Alaska, is roughly 3,500 miles (6,000 kilometers) from the launch site and the U.S. mainland much farther away. [Associated Press]
This missile cannot reach Alaska or Hawaii, but it can reach or a least come very close to Guam now. If you load up Google Earth you can measure the distance between Guam and the missile test site. The distance between these two locations is roughly 2,100 miles. Being able to range Guam is significant because of the number of US military bases already on the island and the fact that even more servicemembers are being relocated there, which will make Guam our major military staging area in the western Pacific.
#3 The North Koreans Had Success In Testing Their Multi-Stage Missile Capabilities
Experts are all in agreement that the North Koreans failed to put a satellite in space, but they are also in agreement that North Korea made progress in their multi-stage rocket capability:
Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said that while the rocket’s first stage successfully broke away, it appears the second and third stages failed to separate or had difficulty doing so. (…….)
But Kim Tae-woo, an analyst at Seoul’s state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said the launch raises the stakes at stalled disarmament talks because Pyongyang now has more to bargain away.
“Militarily and politically, it’s not a failure” because “North Korea demonstrated a greatly enhanced range,” Kim said. “North Korea is playing a game of trying to manipulate the U.S. by getting it within range, which is the so-called pressure card.” [Associated Press]
There may have been issues with the pay load separating from the second booster, but the advancement in their multi-stage rocket capability is quite evident considering just two years ago their missile blew up shortly after lift off and that this test was by far the longest range missile test they have ever done. With the knowledge gained from this test they will be able to further improve their capabilities.
#4 The North Koreans Have Successfully Put Themselves Back On the US’s Agenda
The Obama administration has been trying to keep the North Korea issue on the back burner due to all the other problems they are currently dealing with. Well Kim Jong-il wasn’t about to wait for President Obama to complete his agenda before getting to his:
The UN Security Council’s inability to take harsh action against North Korea in an emergency session Sunday – the first such gathering of the Obama presidency – leaves the challenge posed by Pyongyang’s launch of a long-range missile in Washington’s lap.
That is just where North Korea’s attention-starved leader, Kim Jong Il, wants it.
“North Korea was way down on the list of priorities for Obama, but with this one test firing, they have put themselves at the top of his list of things to do,” says Chaibong Hahm, a Northeast Asia expert at RAND Corp., in Santa Monica, Calif. [Christian Science Monitor]
This missile test has obviously been successful in getting North Korea back into the national spotlight and Obama officials are already lining up to appease the Dear Leader.
As I have stated over and over again, North Korea has no plans to dismantle their nuclear weapons, but now this latest missile test has given them something that they can use to extort more money out of the US without negotiating over their nuclear program.
#5 Kim Jong-il Further Solidified His Domestic Standing Within North Korea
With the opeing of this week’s North Korea’s parliamentary session this missile test has showed the North Korean elite that Kim Jong-il is still in charge and willing to continue to use brinkmanship to get his way.
Thus, with the announcement of the imminent missile launching, the dictator is not trying to get Mr. Obama’s attention so much as his own people’s. It is not merely a question of carrying out the threats of the anti-Lee rhetoric, rich in allusions to a pending comeuppance, that have filled the party newspapers since last fall. The now-familiar cycle of North Korean provocation, American warnings, North Korean follow-through and American calls for more peace talks — calls that are always mocked as an abject surrender — must turn every few years if the “military first” regime is to justify its existence and give heroic meaning to the people’s hardship.
Were the North to exchange its nuclear program for an aid package and an American Embassy it would quite literally become a poor man’s version of South Korea. Mr. Kim is realistic enough to know how long such a state would last. [B.R. Myers - NY Times]
#6 Further Showed the Weakness of UN Sanctions
Despite a variety of sanctions already on North Korea, the Security Council was not even able to agree to issue Kim Jong-il an angry letter. Despite tough sanctions that were passed on North Korea in 2006 by then UN Ambassador John Bolton, the international community to include eventually the US ignored them. Now this latest brinkmanship has once again shown the uselessness of these sanctions and ultimately doesn’t just aid North Korea, but Iran as well as they move forward on their nuclear program despite threats of further UN resolutions and international sanctions against them.
This incident also allowed Russia and China to flex their muscles in the UN and take a position that they can use later on as bargaining chips in negotiations with the US. The Russians for example can say, if you want help with the North Korea issue, then end all US support for the Central Asian nation of Georgia.
#7 Gave Critics Reason to Denounce US Missile Defense
There has long been a chorus of people who denounce missile defense with much of it being for ideological reasons more so then any technical reasons. However, since the military did not shoot down the North Korean missile these same critics have been going around saying missile defense doesn’t work:
However, noting that missile shield advocates will use this launch to push missile defense technology, Wright told CNN, it would not be the answer since North Korea, and any other country could easily use decoys and other counter-measures to thwart the anti-missile technology. [CNN]
Here is more from David Wright:
Wright, a physicist, pointed out that government and independent technical studies have concluded that decoys and other countermeasures can defeat anti-missile systems. These analyses show that any country that is capable of developing and building a long-range missile and nuclear weapon also would have the technologies to deploy effective countermeasures.
Moreover, he added, a September 1999 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on foreign missile developments noted that “Russia and China each have developed numerous countermeasures and probably are willing to sell the requisite technologies.”
“Given the U.S. missile defense system’s high profile, any country developing missiles to fire at the United States would incorporate decoys in its missile design,” Wright said. “And it is highly unlikely the United States would know details about the decoys before an attack, giving any attacker the advantage of surprise.”
The technical reality is that missile defense is not an effective way to stop a missile attack once an attack has been launched, Wright said. “If U.S. policymakers believe a missile attack is a significant security threat, it is irresponsible for them to advocate missile defense as a realistic response. Doing so could create a false sense of security, divert defense dollars from more important uses, and reduce any incentive to develop more effective measures to reduce a missile threat.” [Union of Concern Scientists]
He makes one large flawed assumption and that is that missile defense is being developed to counter Russian and Chinese stockpiles of missiles. It has been pretty clear from the beginning that missile defense is being developed to counter missile threats from rogue states not from large military powers like Russia and China that could overwhelm any missile shield with sheer numbers.
The reason for not shooting down the missile was political and not technical as both the US and Japanese navies equipped AEGIS SM-3 missiles were prepared to shoot it down if ordered to do so, which they were not. The SM-3 has undergone more rigorous flight testing then what shooting down this North Korean missile would have been.
Ultimately by bringing down US missile defense efforts the payment the North Koreans would expect from any agreement to scrap their missile program would only be higher while other rogue nations would have the green light to further develop their own ballistic missile programs. Fortunately I seriously doubt this is going to happen.
So ultimatley in conclusion the reason for creating the perception of a North Korean launch failure has more to do with political realities instead of technical ones. As far as the Obama administation is concerned it would be in their best interest to play down the North Korean missile test as a failure in order to save face because of the fact that trying to punish them through the United Nations will not work.
So expect the chorus of a North Korean missile test failure to continue with calls for more international cooperation until something else comes up and the 24 hour news cycle moves on and everyone forgets about North Korea like they usually do until something else happens. While this is going on better options that don’t rely on the UN are more then likely going to be ignored.