North Korea’s successful launch of a long-range rocket, in the face of international opposition, indicates Pyongyang has taken a major step in its effort to develop a missile capable of reaching the U.S. West Coast, which would give the hermit nation a significant bargaining chip to use against Washington.
Experts said Wednesday’s launch shows North Korea has made important advances after a similar attempt in April failed.
The Korean Central News Agency also announced that a satellite carried by the rocket entered orbit and proclaimed the launch a success. The U.S. military also confirmed that an object entered orbit.
“It only took eight months to make adjustments. It’s possible even their April rocket was close to perfection,” said Narushige Michishita, an associate professor in the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “If the satellite really entered orbit, it also means they could have the capability to attack at a much longer distance.”
Experts also agree that North Korea is increasing the precision of its rocket technology. Debris from the rocket fell in planned areas in the Yellow Sea, the Pacific Ocean off the Philippines and the East China Sea.
“Given that North Korea launched the missile when the weather is severe in the middle of winter, they must have been really confident about its success,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
The reasons for North Korea’s reported partial dismantling of the missile Tuesday and the extension of the launch window are still unknown. But Pyongyang must have been desperate not to fail this time, as it needs to show its citizens and the international community that young and untested leader Kim Jong Un has gained full control one year after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. Experts were in agreement that the successful launch will strengthen its hardline stance.
“They might embark on nuclear tests after this, just like they did after a previous successful launch,” Kotani said.
Even though the Japanese government’s handling of Wednesday’s incident went much smoother than the April attempt — when it took 30 minutes for Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura to announce the liftoff — critics say Japan needs to cooperate more with South Korea.
“If Japan and South Korea have a much better information-sharing system, or Japan can deploy its Aegis ships near the Korean Peninsula, we can have a much better information-gathering system,” Kotani said.
Japan and South Korea failed to sign a military information agreement in June.
A U.S. expert also said Japan might need to expedite development and procurement of enhanced SM-3 Block IIA surface-to-air missiles capable of shooting down intermediate-range ballistic missiles if North Korea continues to enhance its capability.
“North Korea has a long way to go . . . but it’s a first step,” said Kevin Maher, now senior advisor at Washington-based NMV Consulting who served as the consul general at the U.S. Consulate in Naha, Okinawa, from 2006 to 2009. “But Japan has to demonstrate enhanced deterrent capability.”
The international community is poised to impose additional sanctions against North Korea for violating U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, which demanded that Pyongyang not conduct any more launch attempts using ballistic missile technology.
Whether sanctions can be effective depends on if China, under the new leadership of President Xi Jinping, will cooperate with the rest of the international community.
Maher said it will be difficult for China to endorse further sanctions as Beijing is fine with the status quo.
“We need to pressure China for any additional sanctions,” he said.
“The only way to strangle North Korea is to encircle it. We cannot do it without China.”