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North Korea’s Missile Failure: What Went Wrong and What Happens Now?

April 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
North Korea's much-hyped long-range missile broke apart early Friday causing much humiliation for the country's new leader, Kim Jong-un. Margaret Warner and guests discuss what's in store for Kim and the rogue nation's hopes of expanding its military capability in the face of increasing international condemnation.
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MARGARET WARNER: Three perspectives now on the failure.

Charles Vick is a ballistic missile expert and senior technical analyst for GlobalSecurity.org, which assesses weapons programs. And joining him are two former diplomats with long experience dealing with North Korea. Christopher Hill, a career Foreign Service officer, headed the U.S. delegation to the six-party talks with North Korea in 2009. He is now the dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. And Joel Wit spent 15 years in the State Department and served in several U.S. delegations negotiating with the North in the 1990s. He is now a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Welcome to you all.

Charles Vick, let me begin with you. This rocket didn’t even get as far as their last rocket launch in 2009. What went wrong? Do we know?

CHARLES VICK, GlobalSecurity.org: What went wrong was a series of events.

Basically, it was a classic maximum dynamic pressure failure in which the vehicle is just shaken apart. And this primarily affected its third stage. And the payload and the shroud itself, that’s what broke off first and landed approximately 165 kilometers from opposite west of Pyongyang — I mean, Seoul, South Korea.

Then you look at the actual rest of the vehicle with — the first stage continued its burn for about 120 seconds from liftoff and then shut off automatically, rising to an altitude of 151 kilometers.

MARGARET WARNER: So you mean just like four minutes total?

CHARLES VICK: And the flight was four to six minutes in total. The intelligence continues to change, as it will for the next few months, I would think, because of the constant review process that is used by the communities.

And we have three different nations involved here.

MARGARET WARNER: How big a setback is this to their, at least what the West assumes is their goal, which is to develop a rocket that is capable of delivering a nuclear warhead that could threaten its neighbors or even the United States?

CHARLES VICK: It certainly degrades that threat considerably. This launch vehicle has failed at least three different times, primarily in the same general areas, 35 seconds in 2006 after launch and dynamic failure there. You also have the same thing occurring with the third stage actually failing to ignite in 2009.

And, this time, the third stage just fell off, in effect.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Hill, turning to you, what explains this move on the North’s part?

I mean, everybody, all the major powers had united in telling them, urging them not to do this. Then there had just been a deal announced six weeks ago in which the North was agreeing to suspend rocket launches and a lot of different aspects of their nuclear program in return for food aid from the United States.

CHRISTOPHER HILL, former U.S. assistant secretary of state: Well, certainly the North Koreans are very proud of their opaqueness. And this is a circumstance where it’s really kind of hard to know what went on.

But it looks as though there was a lot of pressure put on North Korea, especially from China, to try to get back in the process. The U.S. went along with that. The U.S. worked through it, and implicitly linked food with a stand-down on its nuclear programs and a continued missile moratorium.

I think it’s pretty clear that not all North Koreans agree to that, and, ultimately, they undid the negotiations within weeks. This is a different pattern, though, from the past. In the past, when things would go badly on some negotiating issue, the North Koreans would then issue some kind of provocation.

In this case, things were going fairly well. So it suggests that probably they didn’t really have their act together, they didn’t really have all of their leadership on one page on this. So I think that’s really what happened.

And, as for all the pressure from the international community, I don’t think the North Koreans really care that much about pressure from the international community.

MARGARET WARNER: Joel Wit, this comes at a time, of course, of a transition to a new leader. Do you agree with Ambassador Hill that it suggests that there is kind of disarray, that one hand didn’t know what the other was doing, one hand is cutting a deal with the U.S. and the other hand is pushing forward on the missile front?

JOEL WIT, former State Department official: Well, I think there are a number of theories here about what’s happening.

And one theory is that three trains were put on the tracks in the fall of last year. And that is that. . .

MARGARET WARNER: When his father was alive.

JOEL WIT: When his father, when Kim Jong-il was alive. He made three different decisions, first to move forward with this test, secondly to move forward with a nuclear test, third to move forward with the negotiations.

And, unfortunately, his father died in December, and these three trains have continued to move forward. And no one made a decision to turn any of it off. So that’s just one explanation. But I agree. North Korea is a very opaque place, and we don’t really knows what’s going on.

MARGARET WARNER: So what does this mean — and, Charles Vick, back to you — about the prospects of now what South Korea has been warning about, that they’re about to do another nuclear underground test? First of all, what does the satellite imagery tell us? What are the telltale. . .

CHARLES VICK: The satellite imagery tells us that, indeed, they have dug some new tunnels, as we have seen in previous years, as a prelude to such nuclear tests. So that is expected.

In relation to launch vehicles, the South Koreans — I mean, the North Koreans have already made very clear that they are going to do a second launch in this five-year plan, even though this one was planned, both of these were planned in the previous five-year plans. So the point is that they are going to do another launch.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ambassador Hill, how do you think they’re going to react to this failure? Do you think it makes it more or less likely or is it immaterial to whether they go ahead now with a nuclear underground test?

CHRISTOPHER HILL: Well, I defer to others as to the dimensions of this technical failure.

I mean, obviously, they have had problems with this rocket before. And they might, so to speak, go back to the drawing board. But I think they’re pretty — pretty intent on pushing ahead with this missile program. They understand that a nuclear program without a means of delivery is really not a nuclear program. So I think they’re pretty intent on moving ahead.

And the real question will not be so much the U.S. diplomacy with North Korea, as it will be the U.S. diplomacy with South Korea and China, because the real question is, where is this going to take us? We can see that Kim Jong-un has kind of flunked his first leadership test here. And we can see there are problems.

And the question is whether there is a sort of diplomatic path forward. I can imagine the Chinese are not at all happy with the way the North Koreans have behaved on this.

MARGARET WARNER: Joel Wit, do you see any diplomatic path to — at least to restraining the next nuclear underground test, the assumed one?

JOEL WIT: Well, I don’t think — I don’t think there’s any way of heading that off. I mean, all the events are in motion. And they have been in motion for a while, the missile test.

Then, of course, every one anticipated that we would go to the U.N. for sanctions. And the North Koreans knew this. So they had plans for the nuclear test. That’s going to happen. There’s no way to head any of this off. The issue is, at what point might we get back to a situation where we can at least reengage the North Koreans and put in place a policy to stop this?

MARGARET WARNER: But what kind of engagement — I mean, successive administrations have tried isolation, and they have tried engagement. And nothing seems to divert them from their path.

JOEL WIT: Well, it’s a serious problem; you’re absolutely right.

But the point here is that, if you are going to pursue a policy to deal with North Korea, you need to not only pursue pressure against them through sanctions and other steps to bolster your military presence. You need to reengage and engage them in diplomacy and talking.

MARGARET WARNER: Brief final thought from you, Charles Vick.

What about Ambassador Hill’s point that you have really got to get the Chinese even more engaged? They said they tried to pressure the North on this one, didn’t work, but. . .

CHARLES VICK: We have to understand that North Korea, as well as Iran, are quid pro quo allies of China. So expecting China to go against its fraternal neighbor and ally is a very limiting factor. And they’re just not going to do that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, on that sobering note, Charles Vick, Ambassador Hill and Joel Wit, thank you both — all three, I mean.