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Science and Politics Behind North Korea’s Long-Range Missile Test

December 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Though Kim Jong-Il passed away in December 2011, his son Kim Jong Un continues his father's policies with the latest rocket launch. Margaret Warner talks to David Wright of Union of Concerned Scientists and Han Park of University of Georgia about the politics and consequences for the launch, including proliferation concerns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney said North Korea would face consequences for the launch.

And at the United Nations, the Security Council condemned the action and said that it is considering an appropriate response.

Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: And, for more, we turn to David Wright, a senior scientist and co-director of global security at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

And HanPark, professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia. He travels frequently to North Korea and witnessed April’s failed rocket launch there.

Welcome, gentlemen.

David Wright, beginning with you, how far does — how big an advance in this in North Korea’s drive to develop its long-range missile capability and then potentially something that could be married with their nuclear program?

DAVID WRIGHT, Union of Concerned Scientists: We have known for a long time, a number of years, that North Korea has had the individual components that it could use, rocket engines, things like that.

It’s put them together in a rocket that looks like it has the capability to do what they did yesterday. What they haven’t been able to do is to get it to all work together and to all work at the same time.

So, from my point of view, I don’t feel that much differently about their program today than I did two days ago, simply because the fact that they were able to get everything to work yesterday doesn’t mean they could do it again. It doesn’t tell me anything about the reliability. It doesn’t tell me — it doesn’t look to me like a real technical advance.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Han Park, why would the new leader of North Korea, 29 years old, who was said to be interested in economic reform, make this provocative act one of his very first steps in his first year?

HAN PARK,University of Georgia: Well, this is the continuation of his policy — policy by his father, Kim Jong Il.

Kim Jong Il lived through a very hostile environment, from their point of view. We had the Bush administration here and other countries have — in the Soviet Bloc have changed a lot. And then they felt a great deal of security threat. So Kim Jong Il tried to have this. Of course, long-range missiles, certainly having a satellite up in the space may be …

MARGARET WARNER: But — excuse me, but are you saying that basically Kim Jong-un, therefore, is really just following in his father’s footsteps?

HAN PARK: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: And that’s his priority?

HAN PARK: When it comes to military preparedness, it’s all Kim Jong Il.

And Kim Jong-un’s job is supposed to expand the economy. Of course, economic development should never be pursued at the expense of their national security. That’s the way they feel.

So, they put everything together, now these missiles, the nuclear arsenals. They feel their security is pretty much controlled, not that they’re going attack others, but others won’t attack them. That’s the way they feel.

There are all kinds of motives behind this.

But one thing that is not, yes, included there is the intention to attack the United States. That’s a far-fetched discussion that we fear today.

MARGARET WARNER: David Wright, let me get back to you.

Last time they had a successful test — rocket launch — excuse me — in 2009, they followed it pretty quickly with a nuclear test. Is that the next step from them now on this program, do you think? Do we expect — should we expect to see that?

DAVID WRIGHT: I haven’t heard of any indications that people have seen preparations for that. It’s worth keeping in mind that, in 2009, the launch that they tried to do at that point was also unsuccessful.

Whether or not they feel like this success, which was a particular success for them because they managed to beat South Korea in putting a satellite in orbit — and I think that’s a real P.R. victory for the regime — that may feel for them like the kind of P.R. boost they needed, that they don’t need to follow up with something as provocative as a nuclear test. But it’s hard to tell what — how they’re thinking about this.

MARGARET WARNER: And does this increase the concerns about proliferation? I noticed that the Japanese and South Korean papers were reporting that Iranian observers were on hand for the launch, David.

DAVID WRIGHT: Well, we have known for a number of years that Iran and North Korea have worked together to some extent on this, beginning with North Korean sales of short-range missiles to Iran that Iran seemed to use to start to build up their own program.

And the third stage of this launcher looks very similar to the upper stage of the Iranian launcher. And so that’s pretty direct evidence that there has been some level of discussion, collaboration between them, but we really don’t have a good sense of how deep that goes.

MARGARET WARNER: HanPark, there is talk among some countries, the U.S., Britain, and France certainly, about the possibility of increased sanctions. It’s an open question whether that will happen.

But do you think anything can really dissuade North Korea, one of the most sanctioned countries in the world, from continuing down this path, realistically?

HAN PARK: I think it’s the wrong path. Any kind of sanction will not work. If, in fact, economic sanction especially were to force North Korea to give in, North Korea would have given in many times over.

So, economic sanctions will not bring the desired consequence. So the — we’re talking about sanctions. What other sanctions are there? We have exhausted all sanctions.

But North Korea is not — this time around, no one is talking about possible demise, collapse of the system. And when the grandfather died and the father died and all talks about it, about the possibility of Arab uprising kind of rising, and then system collapse, but that is not going to happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Park, thank you so much.

And, David Wright, thanks.

DAVID WRIGHT: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, you can see photographs of the celebrations in North Korea and the protests in South Korea.