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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 July 2006, 00:49 GMT 01:49 UK
Mixed result for Pyongyang's launches
By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News

Models of North Korean Scud B missiles in a Seoul museum, July 2006
North Korea's missile programme is based on Scud technology
There is no doubting the impact of North Korea's decision to test-fire seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong-2.

Pyongyang says the tests were successful, and on a political level they may well have achieved their objective - they have provoked immediate action within the international community.

After a spell on the sidelines, the North Korea issue has moved centre stage, and countries such as the US, China, South Korea and Japan are engaged in frantic diplomacy to agree an appropriate response.

But less focus has fallen on what exactly the tests mean for the North's missile programme, and whether the secretive state now constitutes more of a military threat than foreign powers realised.

Scud technology

North Korea is believed to have more than 800 ballistic missiles.

It is thought to have received Scud technology from Egypt in the 1970s - and from that developed, with some modifications, short and medium-range missiles that bring South Korea and most of Japan within striking distance.

It has also been working on the 2,200km (1,375 mile) range Taepodong-1, which when test-fired in 1998 flew over northern Japan.

Of the seven missiles test-fired on 5 July 2006, five were known entities - a mix of short-range Scuds and medium-range Nodongs, all of which have been tested in the past. Another unidentified short-range missile was also fired.

But the main concern to the international community was the inaugural firing of a Taepodong-2, from the Musudan-ri launch site in the country's north-east.

This is a new long-range multi-stage missile thought to comprise Nodong and Scud technology, and which is believed to have the capability of reaching Alaska and Hawaii.

The Taepodong-2 test was not a success. Experts say the missile had 42 seconds of normal flight before failure of the rocket's first, or booster, stage caused it to fall into the sea.

There was some suggestion initially that the North Korean engineers had only planned for a short flight.

The missile launch was far more significant politically than it was strategically or technically
Mark Fitzpatrick,
International Institute for Strategic Studies

But Joseph Bermudez, senior analyst with Jane's Defence Weekly, disagreed.

He said the first phase was believed to be new technology, and so the North Koreans would logically want to test the missile to completion of at least the first phase.

There was also the issue of expense. "North Korea is a very poor country, and a missile test and the Taepodong-2 system itself are extremely expensive propositions proportionally for the government," he said.

Professor David Wall, a Northeast Asia expert at Chatham House, added that the failure of the Taepodong-2 indicated the country did not have the technology for a successful long-range missile.

"There are no indications of the ability in North Korea to go beyond minor alterations to Scud technology," he said.

Data

But the value of the launches to North Korea should not be underestimated.

The seven missile tests were the country's most sophisticated to date - a demonstration of the ability to launch multiple systems at multiple locations.

Even if they had a failure, that is helpful, because if there is a flaw in the design and components, the test is going to reveal that
Dr Daniel Pinkston,
Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies

Some of the missiles were fired not from the Musudan-ri site, but from mobile launch equipment. According to Daniel Pinkston from the Centre for Non-Proliferation Studies, this was a way of showing the country's breadth in its deterrent force.

"The North Koreans demonstrated that they could fire missiles from other locations if one were to be taken out in a pre-emptive strike," he said.

He added that, while there had been a lot of focus on the failure of the Taepodong-2 missile, the North Koreans were able to accomplish other things when testing their short and medium-range missiles.

"They could conduct training for their military forces and their command control of their missile units," he said. "It is an opportunity for the guys on the ground to practise."

Equally, although the Taepodong-2 test failed, engineers will have learned from it. "Even if they had a failure, that is helpful, because if there is a flaw in the design and components, the test is going to reveal that."

Mr Bermudez agrees. "They could have learned a tremendous amount, but that depends on the telemetry [data transfer technology]. If it was fine and they were receiving it properly, they would have learned a number of things."

North Korea has threatened further tests if put under international pressure.

South Korean intelligence has shown that two sets of Taepodong-2 missiles were transported to the Musudan-ri site, although the second did not yet appear to be assembled.

"North Korea will feel an imperative to test again, once its engineers determine what went wrong," said Mark Fitzpatrick, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Graphic of missile ranges




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