Experts Say Missile Failure Highlights Ineptness

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By Thomas E. Ricks and Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 6, 2006

The major fallout from North Korea's series of missile launches and the malfunction of its long-range rocket is that its missile program now looks somewhat inept, weapons experts said yesterday.

"The Taepodong-2 was not ready for prime time," said David Kay, a veteran weapons inspector, referring to Pyongyang's controversial attempt to launch a long-range missile. "The ridicule for the failure is entirely on" the North Korean government.

The multistage Taepodong was supposed to be capable of flying perhaps several thousand miles, but it fell into the sea between Korea and Japan about 40 seconds into its flight, before its second stage ignited, officials said. It was not clear whether the missile crashed or was aborted by its controllers, but U.S. and Japanese officials said that intelligence and monitoring of the Taepodong-2 test launch indicated that it failed.

The result of the attempt is that, to some specialists, North Korea looks less dangerous than it did just a few days ago.

"Seems to me their ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] capability has gone no better than sideways the past eight years, if not down," said retired Adm. Dennis Blair, a former chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.

"Less threatening, because less capable," agreed Rep. Mark S. Kirk (R-Ill.), who tracks North Korea.

A Pentagon official said it is too early to expect a definitive intelligence analysis of what happened to the missile. John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a defense think tank, noted that after the successful launch of the Taepodong-1 in 1998, it took about a week for all the photographs and other data to be collected and analyzed. But he speculated that the termination of the flight at about 40 seconds, as the missile was undergoing maximum stress, indicated that North Korean engineers may have weakened the missile's structure and lightened its sides in an effort to enable it to fly farther. "In the drive to get it to a longer range, they might have made something that is too fragile," he said.

Kirk said it is especially significant that the missile failed at about 40 seconds, because that indicates that a problem occurred in the first stage of the craft, which he said had been redesigned to make it bigger.

Tuesday's failure stood in stark contrast to the launch of the Taepodong-1, which shocked U.S. and Japanese officials with its capabilities by soaring over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean. The prospect now that North Korea's most sophisticated technology had fatal glitches indicates that the communist state's technological limits may have been broadly overstated for years.

Military experts say that North Korea's economic problems and its moratorium on missile launches declared in 1999 may have taken a toll on its missile research and development. If the North Koreans, who export an estimated $1.5 billion worth of missiles a year to the Middle East and Africa, had hoped to prove its quality to its clients with Tuesday's test, the plan may have backfired.

"It could be that they just got lucky in 1998," said Motoaki Kamiura, a Tokyo-based defense analyst and North Korea expert. "The failure of the Taepodong-2 shows that they are still at the first stage of their next major breakthrough in missile technology. That doesn't mean their other missiles aren't dangerous, but this one is not ready."

On the other hand, North Korea obscured its embarrassment somewhat by launching six other shorter-range, Scud-like missiles along with the Taepodong, noted retired Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt, a former chief planner for the U.S. Pacific Command who is a specialist on East Asian militaries. "Having six successes as against one failure reads and sounds a lot better" than just one failure, he noted.

In addition, he said, North Korean rocket scientists probably gained valuable data from the failed launch. "They learn something from every launch, no matter whether it is a success or failure," he said.

Faiola reported from Tokyo.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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