North Korea's Recent Rocket Launch
North Korea once again raised eyebrows amongst the international community after test launching the Taep'o-dong 2 missile on Sunday, April 5. This marks the country's third recorded attempt at launching a long-range rocket since 1998; during the first test of the TD-2 in July of 2006 the rocket exploded only seconds after liftoff.
According to North Korea's official news agency, the TD-2 triumphed where its predecessor, the TD-1, had failed by propelling a satellite into space. However, in a statement released by the United States Northern Command, "no object entered orbit." The USNC, which tracks global missile firings using an array of federal radars, spy ships, and satellites, reported that all three stages of the TD-2 rocket, including its payload, splashed down into the Pacific Ocean. North Korea's public assertion of success is reminiscent of the celebratory attitude expressed following the failure of the TD-1 in 1998.
Keep that in mind in case you were rushing off to turn your basements into bomb shelters. By most expert estimations, Pyongyang is years from perfecting the TD-2 rocket, and even further from equipping it with a nuclear warhead. As things stand, the United States faces no significant threat of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched from Pyongyang.
At face value, the North Korea government would agree. The reported purpose of the launch was to send a satellite into orbit that would broadcast patriotic music. However, most western analysts have viewed North Korea's ongoing experimentation with long-range rockets as a thinly veiled display of ICBM capability. Just hours after the launch, President Barack Obama condemned the missile test, and called for new United Nations sanctions to be placed on North Korea during a speech in Prague. Despite North Korea's insistence that the launch TD-2 was purely civilian in nature, Pyongyang's action were recognized as a violation of a 2006 agreement to suspend all activities related to the launch of ballistic missiles. In response to a public rebuke from the UN, North Korea withdrew from nuclear disarmament talks, expelled all UN inspectors from the country, and vowed to restart its nuclear program.
Despite recent developments, a nuclear attack is most likely still far beyond the horizon. When it comes to rocket science, failures are the first steps to success, but as arms control specialist Jeffrey G. Lewis told the New York Times in an article in early April, "[North Korea] does not test often enough to develop confidence that they're getting over their problems." Add to the mix proposed UN sanctions that specifically target industries related to ICBM and nuclear technology and one can only predict a decrease in testing frequency.
The U.S. is turning to China to help return North Korea to the discussion table. But whether or not China succeeds, one thing is certain: the only bombs Pyongyang will be dropping on the U.S. and her allies in the near future will be diplomatic, not nuclear.