North Korean Missile Tests: Educational

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What can scientists and the military learn from recent North Korean missile tests? David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists discusses the tests with Sheilah Kast.


Controversy still roiling over North Korea's launch of test missiles last week. The U.N. Security Council delayed a vote on a proposed resolution from Japan asking for strong economic sanctions against North Korea and a moratorium on missile tests, a move that North Korean officials said they would consider an act of war.

The U.S., France and Britain support the draft resolution but not Russia and China. President Bush repeated his insistence that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program, especially long-range missiles.

Joining us to talk about what may have been learned from the missile launches is David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Mr. DAVID WRIGHT (Union of Concerned Scientists): It's nice to be here.

KAST: The North Koreans launched seven missiles last week. Six of them seemed to have worked, one didn't. What can scientists and the U.S. military tell from that?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, of the seven missiles, six of them were short-range missiles that North Korea has tested before and has launched before. The remaining missile is the one that a lot of the controversy has been around. That's the much bigger, longer-range missile that North Korea has believed to have been preparing and developing for some number of years.

The main thing we learned in this case was that that missile failed very early in flight, after about 40 seconds. That tells us one thing, which is that it's not ready to be declared operational, to be used at this point. The North Koreans still have work to do on that. They have not demonstrated the capability to use it.

On the other hand, it doesn't tell us much about what the capabilities of that missile would be because we saw so little of it. The one thing that I think it's clear to say about this missile is that this is sort of the natural next step in the development of North Korean missiles, as far as anybody can tell.

KAST: Is it obvious to scientists that this missile is meant to test trying to deliver something laterally on the earth, or does it look as if this might be an attempt to start testing for a satellite launch?

Mr. WRIGHT: I think it's more likely than not that North Korea was attempting to use this missile to put a satellite in orbit, for various reasons. But I think, in part, if it succeeded, I think the public relations benefit of having put a - being one of the few countries in the world that have put a satellite in orbit, would have been a, you know, a PR boost for North Korea.

The difficulty is that the - much of the same technology that can be used to put a satellite in orbit is the kind of thing you need for a ballistic missile to deliver a warhead. And so North Korea could have launched something to put a satellite in orbit and still have tested the kinds of technology that it would have needed for a long-range missile.

KAST: So overall how would you rate North Korea's missile program? Are they on a fast track, or are they still a long way from having a substantial program?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, it's difficult to know without knowing what went wrong. It could be a, you know, a relatively simple mechanical problem that failed, which means that if they understood what that was and fixed it, they might be able to have this successful launch next time. But I think it's clear that with no reason to stop, that they will be able to go forward, if they want to, and be able to develop a working missile.

KAST: President Bush says that U.S. weapons systems have a, quote, reasonable chance of shooting down a North Korean long-range missile. What indication of that have you seen?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, I've watched the development of the U.S. missile defense system very carefully, and we've done quite a bit of technical analysis. And what's striking about it is there's currently no demonstrated capability of that system to shoot down a missile, a long-range missile. I found this statement by the president disturbing for that reason, that he said that his military advisers were telling him that the system had a reasonable chance to shoot down a ballistic missile from North Korea, and as I said, there simply is no test data that would allow them to make that statement. And my concern is that if military and political leaders are getting a misunderstanding of what military capabilities the U.S. has, and if they're being told they have capabilities that they, in fact, don't have, that's a very serious situation.

KAST: David Wright is a research scientist in MIT's Program on Science, Technology and Society, and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He joined us from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thanks very much.

Dr. WRIGHT: Okay, thank you.

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