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Could North Korea hit the US with a missile?

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North Korean officials have long talked with bellicosity unmatched in geostrategic circles. Some say that when it comes to their nuclear missile programs, this chest thumping is largely a bluff – pro wrestling drama translated for an international stage.

Their past missile tests have been maximized to give the appearance of performance, and they have never exploded an actual nuclear warhead design, according to RAND analyst Markus Schiller.

Thus concerns about their missile tests are overblown, wrote Mr. Schiller in a lengthy 2012 report on North Korea’s missile programs.

“Every launch further depletes the limited North Korean arsenals, and North Korea gains no real experience from these events. Since the purpose of the launches seems to be political, the United States and other nations should downplay or even ignore them,” he writes.

Not all experts are so sanguine.

For instance, the South Korean Navy has managed to retrieve first-stage debris from North Korea’s December Unha-3 launch, and certain aspects of the space junk appear to reflect novel North Korean use of foreign-obtained technology.

The engine, for instance, appears to have new and slightly unexpected technological additions, such as the ability to steer with small auxiliary engines instead of jet vanes.

The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Tuesday condemning December's rocket launch.

North Korea is not Iraq, whose ballistic missiles turned out to be cruder than US intelligence expected, points out Jeffrey Lewis, director of the CNS East Asia Nonproliferation Program, on the Arms Control Wonk blog.

“There has been a tendency to underestimate what North Korea can do in the space and missile field, and possibly with technology in general,” Mr. Lewis writes.

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