North Korea said its Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite was successfully launched into orbit. (KCTV via EPA)

TOKYO – North Korea launched its sixth long-range rocket Sunday, claiming to have blasted an “earth observation satellite” into orbit. Military authorities in the United States and South Korea both said the launch appeared to have been successful.

But the rocket was widely viewed as part of North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile program, and the launch part of the regime’s efforts to perfect its technology.

With every launch it conducts, North Korea learns more about what it’s doing wrong and what it’s doing right. And that is alarming the international community.

What do we know about Sunday’s launch?

Details are still somewhat sketchy, but the thing that North Korea fired Sunday was a three-stage rocket, one that looked very similar to the “Unha-3” it launched in December 2012. It was successful then at putting a satellite the size of a refrigerator into (very wobbly) orbit. Sunday’s rocket appears to also have been successful in putting a satellite into orbit.

The Unha-3 (also known as the Taepodong-3) is a 100-foot-long rocket with an estimated range of about 6,300 miles. At its shortest point, the distance between North Korea and Alaska is 3,100 miles, while it’s 5,800 miles to Los Angeles. That means that the West Coast of the United States is within reach.

The wise folks at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies have made cool interactive 3-D models of North Korea’s missiles — check out the Unha-3 here.

Wait, did you just say that North Korea can now strike California?

The short answer is: no one knows. We won’t know until the North Koreans actually try to do it. But the rocket that was launched Sunday went into space. An intercontinental missile capable of delivering a payload needs to be able to reenter the atmosphere without breaking up; we don’t know if North Korea has mastered that part yet.

What’s the best guess?

North Korea has been working on this technology for a long time — it began working in the mid-1990s on the three-stage, long-range Taepodong-2, considered capable of delivering a small payload to the U.S. West Coast. North Korea has tested the Taepodong-2 on several occasions.

In 2006, it broke up about 40 seconds into its flight, while the Unha-2 space launch vehicle — a modified version of the Taepodong-2 — fired in 2009 was also seen as a technical failure, according to CNS. But on Dec. 12, 2012, North Korea had better results launching the Unha-3 and putting a satellite into orbit.

Complicating the analysis this time is the fact that North Korea has gone to some lengths to cover its tracks. After the 2012 flight, parts of the Unha-3 were scooped up from the ocean, and experts analyzed them. Their findings were summarized in this report from a U.N. panel of experts on North Korea, which concluded that most of the rocket was domestically made.

This time, however, the first stage of the rocket appears to have exploded itself, meaning there’s not much debris to collect.

Regardless, the changes needed to convert the Unha-3 from a “space launch vehicle” into an intercontinental ballistic missile are relatively minor.

The North Koreans could press the Unha-3 into limited service as an intercontinental ballistic missile as a temporary measure until something better was available, said John Schilling, an aerospace engineer with a penchant for launch vehicle propulsion systems. “They can almost certainly build something better, and they appear to be trying,” he wrote on the 38 North website, noting that North Korea displayed models of the KN-08 missile during parades in Pyongyang.

Also, an increasing number of American military chiefs think that North Korea is now capable of this technology.

Nuclear war is nigh!

Whoa, hang on there a second. There are other factors to take into consideration. Not least: can North Korea make one of its nuclear weapons small enough to fit onto a missile?

North Korea declared in February 2013, and has since reiterated, that it had miniaturized a nuclear warhead, although there’s been no proof of that claim.

But Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces in Korea, and Adm. William Gortney, head of the U.S. Northern Command, believe that North Korea now has miniaturization capability.

The North Koreans “have the capability to reach the [U.S.] homeland with a nuclear weapon from a rocket,” Gortney said last October.
You can read a comprehensive rundown of American military assessments here, from the Council on Foreign Relations.

So, who ordered this launch? Did it come from the top?

It sure did. North Korea broadcast a picture of leader Kim Jong Un’s handwritten order to launch, as well as photos of Kim presiding over the rocket launch, complete with a photo of him in the control room surrounded by cheering generals, and another of him surveying the launch site.

Similar photos came out after North Korea's fourth nuclear test, conducted last month. Pyongyang claimed it had detonated a hydrogen bomb, but analysts said it appeared to be a more conventional atomic device like the one North Korea previously tested.

There’s a reason Kim is flexing his military muscles. In May, North Korea will hold a congress of the Korean Workers’ Party, the backbone of the communist state. Such a gathering has not been held in 36 years, since Kim Jong Il was announced as heir to his father, founding president Kim Il Sung, in 1980. Analysts suspect that Kim Jong Un wants some tangible achievements to crow about at that event.

If you want to read more about Sunday’s launch, Melissa Hanham at CNS has a great rundown here: