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North Korea’s New Missile: ‘It’s Sophisticated’

April 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
North Korea, one of the world's most secretive and belligerent regimes, is gearing up to launch a missile topped with what it says is a communication satellite. Judy Woodruff and John Isaacs of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation discuss the regime's hopes of an image boost and other possible launch outcomes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on this, I’m joined now by John Isaacs. He is the executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where he focuses on missile defense and nuclear weapons.

And it’s good to have you with us.

JOHN ISAACS, executive director, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just from what you’ve seen of that missile and anything else you know about it, what can you tell us about it?

This is something that the North Koreans have done twice already.

JOHN ISAACS: They’ve conducted two missile tests, once in 2006, once in 2009, neither one which — neither one were very successful.

And so they’re trying again. Ultimately, this missile, if it’s successful, could go as far as the Western United States, Alaska, Hawaii. But it’s a long way from developing this missile as the North Koreans want to do, but to also develop a nuclear bomb that they can mate to the top of the missile.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, they say right now this is just a missile to get a satellite into orbit.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it seems to be that kind of missile, at the very least.

JOHN ISAACS: But the same technology could be used for launching a satellite or launching a nuclear warhead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How sophisticated a missile is it? Can you compare it to anything else that the West, that the United States knows about?

JOHN ISAACS: It’s sophisticated. If they can get it to work, it’s sophisticated, I think, by definition. If it could carry a warhead thousands of kilometers, it would be very sophisticated, but it’s not easy to do.

And when the United States launched itself into the missile race many — in the 1960s, their first tests were quite unsuccessful, and that seems to be happening with North Korea as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is this — does this appear to be the same type missile that the North Koreans tried in — you said ’06 and ’09?

JOHN ISAACS: We think it — it seems to be about the same. We call it — the United States calls it a Taepodong, I think, 2. And I don’t know. The North Koreans have a different name for it.

Yes, roughly the same kind, three-stage rocket. And sometimes the third stage hasn’t worked in the past. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how much is known about how successful this missile is? I mean, you sound like it’s not clear.

JOHN ISAACS: Well, no, the last tests have not been very successful.

The North Koreans, I think, in 2009, claimed that they had launched a satellite into space, but there’s no record that that actually happened. I think they were claiming falsely that the rocket was more successful than it in fact was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But assuming they were successful with this missile, getting a satellite into orbit, what about the next step? If they were — if they had in mind putting some sort of nuclear warhead on there, is that the kind of missile that would carry a nuclear warhead?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Do the North Koreans have that capability?

JOHN ISAACS: They have the capability of developing a nuclear weapon. They have an estimated three to six nuclear weapons, nuclear bombs already.

That’s different from developing the technology of a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on the top of a rocket and travel a long distance. And they certainly don’t have that technology as yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They certainly don’t?


JUDY WOODRUFF: And so how far are they?

JOHN ISAACS: I can’t say. I just don’t know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In other words, what they have now is not small enough, isn’t the right size, the right technical specifications to work with that kind of missile?

JOHN ISAACS: That’s certainly as far as we know.

I mean, quite frankly, of course, the North Koreans’ government and society is a very secretive one, and so we don’t know everything that’s happening. But we are able to monitor the nuclear tests. We are able to monitor the missile launches. And that’s the best estimates we have, that they haven’t developed the technology to deliver a bomb a long distance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, since we have to engage in hypotheticals here, since it isn’t known clearly what they can do, if they were to get the missile to work, and if they were to get the nuclear warhead, as you say, small enough to work on that particular missile, how much damage could something like that do?

JOHN ISAACS: Well, any nuclear bomb — and this is a relatively small one that the North Koreans have tested up to now — can do, obviously, a lot of damage.

I mean, two small bombs destroyed two Japanese cities in 1945 in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So, clearly, a bomb could do a tremendous amount of damage, if it could be delivered on a city, let’s say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And is there technology to compare in other countries with what the North Koreans might be working on?

JOHN ISAACS: Well, there are nine nuclear powers at this point, including — not including North Korea — I mean, including North Korea, not including Iran, which seems to be moving somewhat in that direction.

But India and Pakistan, for example, have the technology and the Indians keep working on longer-range missiles that could deliver a nuclear bomb a greatest distance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the most — best-case scenario, if you’re speaking from the North Korean perspective, what’s the soonest, one thinks, that experts think that they could put something together that would be a threat?

JOHN ISAACS: Again, it’s really hard to say because there’s just too much secrecy within the country.

But considering all the troubles they’ve had thus far in developing the technology, it’s pretty surely many years away. And even having one or two missiles with a nuclear bomb obviously could cause a lot of damage, but there’s a lot of potential response.

I mean, the United States has some 15,000 — excuse me — 1,550 long-range nuclear warheads that we could deliver on targets. Russia, obviously, has a lot as well. So, there’s — even if there’s a threat of a nuclear bomb from North Korea, there’s appropriate response.

Plus, we have a lot of conventional — the United States has a lot of conventional power in South Korea and in Asia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In other words, going after the launch site, you were saying, before they could launch something.

JOHN ISAACS: I don’t think anyone’s proposing that, a preemptive strike.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Okay. But you mean going after the missile in flight? Is that what you’re saying?

JOHN ISAACS: For many decades, the United States had a very strong deterrent force against the Soviet Unions. In that case, the Soviets had many thousands of nuclear weapons.

If the North Koreans develop and are able to produce the technology to get a nuclear bomb that could go a long distance, I’m saying we have appropriate response to forestall any attack. In other words, having a bomb and using it are two very different things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds like there’re still a number of ifs in all of this.

JOHN ISAACS: Oh, there are many ifs here.

This seems to be done, from North Korea’s perspective, more for power and prestige. And this is the 100th year of the birth of the founder the country. This is the year of prosperity in the country. So it’s — I don’t think there’s an aggressive intent in terms of launching an attack, but it’s to show that North Korea is a power that has to be dealt with.

And if you’re North Korean and you look at what happened in Iraq in 2003, Iraq didn’t have any nuclear forces. The United States decided to launch an attack to remove Saddam Hussein. But the second part of the axis of evil, we have never launched that kind of attack on North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just finally, John Isaacs, how closely do you think you and other proliferation experts are going to be watching what happens over the next few days?

JOHN ISAACS: I will be watching very closely. But it may happen in the middle of the night. And of course Korean time is something close to a day ahead of ourselves.


JOHN ISAACS: So it’s a little hard to figure out.

The test is supposed to occur between April 12 and 15. So we have a window of about four or five days. So, I’m not going to stay awake all five days, if that’s what you’re asking.


JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, John Isaacs, we thank you very much.