SEOUL – North Korea’s recent rocket launch amounted to the test of a ballistic missile capable of carrying a half-ton nuclear payload more than 10,000 km, the South Korean Defense Ministry said Sunday.
North Korea launched its three-stage Unha-3 rocket on Dec. 12, insisting it was a purely scientific mission aimed at putting a polar-orbiting satellite in space.
Sunday’s estimate was based on analysis of an oxidizer container — recovered from the rocket’s first-stage splashdown site — which stored red fuming nitric acid to fuel the first-stage propellant. “Based on our analysis and simulation, the missile is capable of flying more than 10,000 km with a warhead of 500 to 600 kg,” a Defense Ministry official told reporters.
Without any debris from the second and third stages to analyze, the official said it could not be determined if the rocket had re-entry capability — a key element of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology.
It also remains unclear if North Korea possesses technology to make a warhead that can withstand the heat that typically occurs during re-entry into the atmosphere.
Most of the world saw North Korea’s rocket launch as a disguised ballistic missile test that violates U.N. resolutions imposed after Pyongyang conducted nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The success of the launch was seen as a major strategic step forward for the isolated North, although missile experts differed on the level of ballistic capability demonstrated by the rocket.
The debris collected by the South Koreans was made of an alloy of aluminum and magnesium with eight panels welded manually.
“Welding was crude, done manually,” the Defense Ministry official said, adding that oxidizer containers for storing toxic chemicals are rarely used by countries with advanced space technology.
The South Korean Navy later recovered three more pieces of the rocket — a fuel tank, a combustion chamber and an engine connection rod — from the Yellow Sea and has been analyzing them, Yonhap news agency said Sunday. “As the additional pieces are salvaged, we will be able to look deeper into the function and structure of North Korea’s long-range rocket,” another Defense Ministry official said.