N. Korea's Missile-Test Threat Sparks Fear, Curiosity

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Many officials this week voiced concern of the possibility of a long-range missile test by North Korea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it a "very serious matter." On Saturday, two defense officials from the Clinton administration wrote that if North Korea does not take the missile back to the warehouse, the United States should destroy it.


There was a lot of fuss this past week over the possibility of a long-range missile test by North Korea. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it a very serious matter. And two senior defense officials from the Clinton administration wrote that if North Korea does not take the missile back into the warehouse, the U.S. should destroy it.

Some missile experts, however, say North Korea's program is in the early stages, and the U.S. could gather valuable intelligence by letting the launch go ahead and watching.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


North Korea has not been shy about its military ambitions. When the former head of Los Alamos National Laboratory visited two years ago, Korean officials showed him a jar of what they said was plutonium for nuclear weapons. And back in 1998, North Korea test-fired a long-range missile that soared over Japan and landed in the ocean.

The combination, nuclear weapons and a missile that could potentially reach the United States, makes people nervous. But Ivan Ulrich(ph) says there's no immediate need for concern. He's a physicist at the Federation of American scientists, a think tank concerned with arms control.

Mr. IVAN ULRIC (Physicist, Federation of American Scientists): Some missiles might be able to quote "reach the United States" in the sense that they'll be able to deliver a golf ball to Alaska. But if they do have a nuclear bomb, everyone agrees that it would be fairly primitive and probably weigh at least 1,000 pounds. And this missile would not be able to deliver that payload to the United States.

KESTENBAUM: And Ulrich says it would not be a bad thing if the Koreans test-fired their missile. The Soviets did this all the time during the Cold War. The U.S. built special radar systems and watched.

Mr. ULRICH: You get an enormous amount of information by observing a test and following it with radar.

KESTENBAUM: From radar, you can tell a missile's acceleration. And as the rocket travels, it gets lighter because it burns off fuel. So the missile gains speed more quickly as it travels.

Mr. ULRICH: So you can figure out how much it speeds up for a given amount of fuel, how much thrust do I get out of a pound of fuel. That's a key measurement called the specific impulse that determines the overall performance of the missile.

KESTENBAUM: How do you know this?

Mr. ULRICH: I used to be a rocket scientist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: He studied missiles for a defense contractor. David Montague has been a rocket scientist for nearly 50 years, at one point president of missile systems at Lockheed Martin.

Mr. DAVID MONTAGUE (Rocket Scientist): I'm a little perplexed as to what all the hoo-hah's about.

KESTENBAUM: Montague says he can't imagine North Korea using a long-range missile against the U.S. And he says so far, judging from published reports, what the Koreans have assembled looks pretty simple, basically one short-range rocket stuck on top of another.

Mr. MONTAGUE: You know, it's crude. It's not sophisticated. I would expect that they'll have lots more failures before they're done. Our experience has been, on almost every program, that we needed at least 20 development flights before we had confidence that we really understood the design.

KESTENBAUM: Some commentators have suggested that this would be a good chance for the U.S. to test its Missile Defense System, try to shoot down North Korea's missile if it were headed our way. So far, its success rate has been about 50/50 in trials. But physicist Richard Garwin says no, not a good idea. He worked on a 1998 Congressional commission reviewing missile threats to the United States.

Mr. RICHARD GARWIN (Physicist): Oh, I think that the very best thing would be to let it land. We would have a real cause for complaint against the North Koreans. And the odds of an inert payload landing at a random location hurting anybody are miniscule.

KESTENBAUM: North Korea claimed that its last test missile, the one that crossed Japan in 1998, was actually a rocket trying to put a satellite in orbit. Garwin has seen the intelligence data and is confident that's right. If North Korea is planning to put a satellite up this time, it will probably be small. When China put up its first satellite, it carried a little transmitter which broadcast a patriotic song called The East is Red.

(Soundbite of song "The East is Red")

KESTENBAUM: China's next satellites, though, were significantly more advanced.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.


For that recording, thanks to the Web site Sven's Space Place.

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