Why North Korea Still Sucks at Launching Rockets

Congratulations, North Korea. You have just failed to put a satellite in orbit for the fourth time in fifteen years. Exhale, America: Pyongyang will not be able to attack you at home.

The North Korean rocket launch that gave the world heartburn is a dud. Again. CNN reports that the Unha-3 rocket blew up after failing to get its "Bright Star" satellite into orbit. In case you're counting, that makes them 0 for 4 since 1998.

That has big implications for the North's ability to strike the United States. If Pyongyang's rockets can't launch a satellite into orbit, there's no way they could power a long-range missile into space to come crashing down onto Hawaii, or California, or points east. Years of predictions of imminent North Korean mega-missile - thank you, still-presidential-candidate Newt Gingrich - have been disproven yet again.

But you wouldn't know it from listening to U.S. politicians. "An avowed enemy of freedom, with a new and unpredictable leadership, possesses nuclear weapons and is testing their capability to strike long-range targets, including the American homeland," Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Talk about missing the point. "The way they're going," says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterrey Institute, "they'll be able to hit us the Wednesday after never."

Now for the caveats. It's not that the North Koreans couldn't hit the United States. It's that launching rockets is hard. The U.S.' Cold War-era Redstone rockets failed repeatedly. That's why you test your rockets.

But North Korea doesn't test their rockets. It holds demonstrations of their rocket capabilities, making them seem like fearsome world events. And they either lie about the results or keep silent about the failures. That's the script that played out in 1998, when a rocket plunked into the Sea of Japan (success!); 2006, when another blew up after 42 seconds (silence); and in 2009, when it swore it got a Kwangmyongsong-2 into orbit but no one else could see or hear the thing.

There's also reason to believe, with this latest failure, that Pyongyang is getting worse at their launches. "If the North Koreans were making progress with their missile program, you would expect to see them fixing problems after each failure and fine-tuning the technology," says Brian Weeden, a former officer with the U.S. Air Force Space Command. "Instead, you see a range of different failure modes, indicating they are not really making much progress and actually may be going backwards as they keep making changes without truly understanding what went wrong in each case."

Now, if the North Koreans tested their rockets as frequently as the U.S. (and the Russians, and the Chinese) used to test theirs, then yeah, they'd be able to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile. So why don't they?

"They're under lot of pressure," says Lewis, "and when they do ‘test' them, they get sanctioned." And that's likely to happen again, as the United Nations Security Council is set to meet tomorrow to discuss another round of punitive measures for the North Koreans.

There's definitely a sense, as Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy writes, that the rocket launch ends the Obama administration's attempts at engagement. But in a broad sense, the policies of successive U.S. administrations, along with the international community, have successfully stopped the North Koreans from developing a missile capability worth a damn.

There's something else that Kim Jong-un probably doesn't want to admit. Even if the rocket launch had succeeded, "this is not exactly a war-winning capability here," Lewis notes. "It takes three days to erect the thing and fuel it. That's a terrible record when the U.S. Air Force is looking for you."

If there's one thing the North Koreans know about by now, it's terrible records.

Image by AP


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