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Repercussions from the North Korean Missile Launch


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Our main focus this hour is on Mexico, where the two leading candidates in Sunday's elections declared themselves President-elect, and a final decision could involve months of recounts and challenges in court. And the state of Connecticut is the focus of our Political Junkie segment this week, so if you have questions about the Senate race there or other issues in politics this week - immigration hearings begin today, there's a political standoff, we've heard, in New Jersey, or questions about this fall's elections - you can send us e-mail now. The address is [email protected].

But first, over the past 24 hours, North Korea has test fired seven missiles: several short and medium-range, one intercontinental missile, which failed less than a minute after its launch. There is a lot of diplomatic response. Russia has summoned North Korea's envoy to hear a protest, and an aide to President Putin said that the issue would certainly come up at next week's G8 meetings in St. Petersburg.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council met in emergency session to consider a resolution drafted by Japan, the U.S., and Britain, that would put an embargo on the shipment of any materials that might aid North Korea's missile program. U.S. officials described the launches as a provocation. A statement from North Korea said the country is not bound by any international agreement on missiles and has every right to flight tests.

On the military side, the reported failure of the long-range Taepodong missile suggests that North Korea still has a long way to go.

If you have questions about what we've learned about North Korea's capabilities and how we know it, our phone number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is [email protected].

Joining us now is John Pike, Director and founder of, and he joins us by phone from his office in Alexandria, Virginia. Nice to talk to you, John.

Mr. JOHN PIKE (Director and Founder, Yes, good to be here.

CONAN: What's the most important thing that's happened over the past 24 hours?

Mr. PIKE: Well, North Korea finally attempted to fly their long-range missile that might be capable of reaching the lower 48 states of the United States - a missile that's been under development since the early 1990s. And the flight, 43 seconds into it, apparently terminated. We're not sure why.

So this missile's been under development for quite some time and is apparently still a work in progress.

CONAN: Now is that the same missile that over flew Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean in 1998?

Mr. PIKE: No, the Taepodong-1 is a shorter-range, two-stage missile that, as you said, they test flew once in 1998. They said that they were trying to put a satellite into orbit. The third stage failed to fire, no satellite went into orbit. They continue to claim the satellite is up there, though.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PIKE: This is a much bigger missile that is assessed as being able to launch a nuclear warhead to somewhere in the lower 48 states - the United States. Whether it's just barely capable of getting to Seattle or whether it'll get all the way to Florida is something that people have been arguing about for several years. We just don't know.

CONAN: And how much of a payload it can carry to get there is also in dispute. Of course, North Korea would have to design a nuclear warhead small enough to fit - small and light enough to fit.

Mr. PIKE: Well, this is really an amazing missile. Even though it's only been test flown once, and that test flight yesterday ended in failure, over the last decade the estimated range to this missile has more than doubled. When they originally saw a mock-up of it, or a satellite of it saw a mock-up of it in the early '90s, it was assessed as barely being able to get to the Aleutian Islands.

Over the years, its assessed range has more than doubled - by some estimates tripled - which is pretty good work considering that it had never been flown. And now, we've seen they've flown it once and that failed.

CONAN: We've all seen footage of American flight tests of missiles as they explode on the launching pad or go crazy just after they're launched. How unusual is it that a first flight test of a new missile would be a failure?

Mr. PIKE: Well, it's normal that with new flight hardware you're going to have a failure, if not on the first flight, the second or third flight you're going to have something go wrong. Because there's always something about flying that you didn't figure out on the ground.

One of the things that is very intriguing, though, is the exact timing of this failure, at 43 seconds is the best reporting we have right now. It was basically starting to undergo what's called maximum dynamic pressure. That's the point at which it's starting to go fast, still in the lower part of the atmosphere, and that combination of high speed and dense atmosphere is putting an awful lot of strain on the airframe.

It may be that in their effort to get this missile to reach all the way to the lower 48 states that they added too much lightness to the airframe, that it was just too flimsy and too fragile, not able to withstand the rigors of maximum dynamic overpressure. And it may be that they're going to have to go back to the drawing board and start all over again in designing this missile.

CONAN: But as far as we know, this may be they can have much better success next week, or next month, or next year.

Mr. PIKE: Well, it's entirely possible, on the other hand, that it was simply a guidance failure, that's an electronics problem. They might be able to fix it quickly. And I don't think that anybody should be surprised or alarmed if we discover that they've got another one of these missiles on the launch pad by the end of the month.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And what about those other half-dozen missiles? What were they?

Mr. PIKE: Well, I think that North Korea was putting on a Fourth of July fireworks demonstration, that it's an equal opportunity threat, that there was something in there for everyone.

There were scuds tested that would be capable of reaching South Korea with a nuclear warhead...

CONAN: Scuds, of course, are the old Russian-designed missiles.

Mr. PIKE: That the North Koreans have been building in conjunction with Iran ever since the - and Egypt, since the 1980s. There's also the medium-range Nodong missile that they have been developing in conjunction with Iran and Pakistan. That's capable of reaching Japan. And its assessed that North Korea may already have as many as 100 of those missiles.

Now, the North Koreans also have the option of taking a variant of that Nodong missile, putting it in a 40-foot cargo containers that are ubiquitous on the world's oceans, putting that on a tramp steamer and sailing within a few hundred miles of American coast and using that to attack us directly.

So the fact that that missile failed yesterday, the long-range missile failed, does not mean that the United States is still outside the range of North Korea's missiles.

CONAN: And the other question is, of course, how do we know about this stuff? Of course, some information can be gleaned from orbit, by satellites, but were there ships in the area to monitor these flights?

Mr. PIKE: Well, I don't know whether we had more cameras watching the shuttle flight yesterday or watching this flight yesterday. I think it was probably - I might actually bet that we had the North Korean flight better instrumented than we had that shuttle launch. We had ships, we had airplanes, there were satellites, there were radars on the ground in Japan.

This thing was wired for sound, because this is the missile that America's long-range missile defense program has been aiming to intercept for the last decade. To finally see this thing in flight, that was some really precious data that the mission defense people, the intelligence community, they were simply not going to pass up the opportunity to get a look at this thing.

CONAN: And they can eavesdrop on any communications between the missile and its designers and its base?

Mr. PIKE: Right. If there was any telemetry going to the ground, they're going to be able to intercept that. Even if it was highly encrypted, the fact that it's so brief and that it's so potentially informative, I think the people out at Fort Meade, at the National Security Agency, I think they'll come in over the weekend if that's what it takes in order to decrypt it, to try to understand what the telemetry was saying.

And particularly, given that it was a failure, trying to understand what the source of the failure was.

CONAN: An e-mail question from Karen(ph), in New Hampshire. "How do we know they didn't scuffle the missile 42 seconds after launch?"

Mr. PIKE: Well, that's certainly one possibility, and that's one of the reasons that you're going to be looking at your radar data to see, did the missile tumble before flight termination, did something fall off of it before flight termination? Did - Is there something in the telemetry that tells you that there was a command to turn the engines off? Is there something that would lead you to conclude that possibly the missile wasn't even fully fueled? That it was just intended to be the first half of the first stage and the rest of the thing was empty?

I mean, you can multiply out all of the various hypotheses as to what happened. The trick is going to be to look at the data to try to narrow that down.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. And this is Ray(ph). Ray is calling us from Minnetonka in Minnesota.

RAY (Caller): Yeah, my question to the guest there is that now that Bush administration has gone into Iraq and brought down Saddam Hussein and his weaponry that we don't know of, but is it possible that he could go out into North Korea right now and then just bring down all those different long and short range missiles?

CONAN: John Pike, the administration has responded saying diplomacy is the best way to do this, referring again to the six party talks that have been on hold for some months now with North Korea.

Mr. PIKE: Well, for the last decade, I think we've been running an arms race with North Korea, and we've been losing that arms race. North Korea's has been building its missiles up. It's been building its nuclear weapons capabilities up. The United States has been building a missile defense in response, but at the end of the day, Japan remains defenseless. South Korea does not have a robust missile defense system, and I think that until the American missile defense system for all three countries has high confidence in being able to intercept anything that North Korea might fire, that deterrence is working. That the United States has deterred from attacking North Korea because North Korea has nuclear tipped missiles that could either get to us or our friends and allies and, at this point at least, certainly for the rest of this decade, there's not a heck of a lot we can do about that.

CONAN: Ray, thanks for the call.

One other question, and that is - one question that arises is the UN Security Council draft proposal - draft resolution says there would be a ban on shipments to North Korea of anything that might aid their missile program. Is that likely to have much effect?

Mr. PIKE: I don't think it's going to have any effect at all. I mean, the North Koreans have been working on this missile technology for several decades now. They've basically had assistance from Russian around the end of the Cold War, but that's a thing of the past. They've been in cahoots with Pakistan and Iran for at least the last decade. In fact, they outsourced testing their medium range missile to Pakistan and Iran. They can pretend to have a flight test moratorium because their missile was being tested by these other countries.

At this point, I think that the technical cooperation between Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea is the sort of thing that, you know, people could meet in a hotel and exchange DVDs. It's just not the sort of thing that international embargo is going to be effective against, I don't think, I fear.

CONAN: And finally, John Pike, there had been some thought that if this Taepodong-2, the long range missile, had gone on further into its flight it might have been engaged by U.S. interceptors based in Alaska, the ballistic missile defense system. I suspect that there may have been some relief that it didn't enter the envelope.

Mr. PIKE: Well, we're still trying to understand exactly what the launch azimuth was. If, as many people anticipated, they were going to try to launch a satellite with it, it would have been flying straight due east. It would have headed out across the South Pacific and never come close to the range of the American missile defense interceptors.

CONAN: All right. John Pike, thanks very much. Appreciate your time today.

Mr. PIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: John Pike is Director and founder of and joined us by phone from his office in Alexandria, Virginia.

And for a look at the missiles that make up North Korea's arsenal, you can go visit our website at

We're going to take a short break. When we come back, our focus will be on Mexico. If you'd like to join us to talk about that country's disputed presidential election, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address: [email protected].

I'm Neal Conan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.