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Today's launch by North Korea of an Unha-3 (or Taepodong-2) long-range rocket is already drawing strong negative reactions from many governments. Numerous states as well as the United Nations had urged North Korea not to proceed with the launch after it announced its plans in early December. Many experts consider this launch, like earlier 'satellite launches', to be a test launch as part of a North Korean programme to develop a long-range ballistic missile, perhaps to be used with a nuclear warhead. However successful today's launch was, it does not mean that North Korea has, or is anywhere near having, the capability to launch a long-range ballistic missile strike, especially a nuclear-armed one.
The North Korean missile programme and the origins of the technologies used are not very transparent. The programme is based on technology received over two decades ago from the Soviet Union, probably with some technology from Russia and some Chinese expertise, but all blended into indigenous designs.
To make such new designs reliable, substantial testing of actual missiles is needed, as other countries with ballistic missile programmes have long recognized. However, North Korea has so far carried out very few tests of multi-stage, long-range missiles, and all four tests of such missiles conducted prior to today’s launch (in 1998, 2006, 2009 and as recently as April 2012) failed.
Information on the capabilities of the Unha-3 is sketchy. It is a three-stage missile and has an estimated range of some 6000 to 8000 km if used as a ballistic missile with a payload of possibly up to 1000 kg. There is evidence that North Korea is developing even longer-range missiles, potentially even capable of reaching the USA, based on the same technology.
Testing a multi-stage missile on a one-way mission into space can be considered an important step towards developing a long-range warhead delivery capability. The correct working of the engines, the guidance system and the difficult issue of stage separation can be tested. However, the capability to deliver a warhead over a long distance requires mastering the difficult technology needed for the warhead to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. So far there is no evidence that North Korea has done so; today’s launch was limited to attempting to place a satellite in orbit and did not include a re-entry.
Since 2006 North Korea has been banned by the UN Security Council from conducting tests of ballistic missiles (under Security Council Resolution 1718) as they are potential delivery systems for nuclear warheads.
Although North Korea may be developing and testing long-range missiles primarily for propaganda or status, there is a strong suspicion that the activity is linked to North Korea’s programme to develop nuclear warheads. One reason for this is that ballistic missiles generally carry a rather limited warhead, often no more than 1000 kg. Unless the missile is capable of very precise targeting, it makes little sense to load a conventional warhead onto a long-range missile given the cost of the missile and the limited destructive power of such a warhead.
The status of North Korea’s nuclear warhead development programme is, however, highly uncertain. North Korea conducted two tests of nuclear explosive devices, one in 2006 and one in 2009. There is widespread agreement that the first test was a complete failure, and the success of the 2009 test is unclear. As with the missile tests, North Korea does not seem to have carried out enough tests of nuclear explosive devices to have been able to develop an operational nuclear weapon, much less an advanced warhead that is sufficiently compact to be carried atop a ballistic missile.
While the launch of the Unha-3 today was a clear violation of the UN embargo and has inevitably fed international suspicions and anxieties, it is still too early to talk of a North Korean nuclear weapon capability.