March 30th, 2009
06:55 PM ET

Missile launch would be N. Korea's big win

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/03/30/north.korea.rocket/rocket.jpg caption="The latest satellite image shows a rocket sitting on its launch pad in the north east of the country."]

Mike Mount
CNN Senior Pentagon Producer

Talk at the Pentagon about the expected missile launch by North Korea early next month is not what you might expect.

Most, if not all, officials we have spoken to are underwhelmed at the prospect that Pyongyang could fire a ballistic missile.

“Look there’s not much we can do, if they want to launch it, they’re going to launch it,” said one senior Pentagon official, echoing the thoughts of many in the building.

Don't get me wrong, there is definitely a worry about where the missile will go and what it will do, the real worry is what the missile launch means for the future of North Korea's missile program.

Pyongyang has said they will launch a communications satellite sometime in the first week of April. But the test is widely thought to be a cover for testing a ballistic missile the North Koreans would be able to use if it ever wanted to launch a nuclear weapon. Both actions are banned by a United Nations Security Council resolution.

North Korea has had a poor track record of successful ballistic missile launches, so and they are also seem to be trying to show the rest of the world they have a viable missile program. In 1998 the North Koreans said they were successful in putting a satellite into orbit but U.S. intelligence said the missile broke up before it got into space.

In 2006 it launched another long-range ballistic missile, a Taepodong-2, which blew up only 40 seconds after launch.

“Since the first time that they launched the missile it flew for a few minutes before crashing, the range of the Taepodong-2 remains to be seen,” said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last month. “So far, it's very short,” he said.

The worry is that North Korea learns more with each missile launch - even when they're unsuccessful - potentially making the nuclear power more and more dangerous.

The worry about a launch is what the North Koreans could glean out of a successful flight to improve the missile program. Even an unsuccessful launch can provide them with useful information, Pentagon officials say.

The U.S. believes the range on a fully operational Taepodong-2 ballistic missile could reach Alaska. But U.S. officials say the North Koreans are also working to extend that range so it could to hit as far as the west coast of the United States.

The U.S. has moved numerous ships to the western Pacific and Sea of Japan to monitor the missile flight path. While the ships have the means to track and shoot the missile down, Defense Secretary Gates has said it is highly unlikely President Obama will authorize a shoot down unless there is a direct threat to the United States.

It has been almost three years since North Korea's last launch attempt. The information the ships gather from the flight of the missile will also help the intelligence agencies discover the latest compatibilities of the North Koreans.

In the meantime, the U.S. continues to try and persuade to dissuade the North Koreans from launching the missile and from building more ballistic missiles, deter them from continuing with that activity, official say.

But expectations are low and Pyongyang will not launch, so the U.S. continues to closely monitor the missile preparations on the launch pad for an expected launch.

But Pyongyang is expected to launch anyway. So the world watches, and braces for potentially dangerous results.

Filed under: Mike Mount • North Korea • Pentagon
soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Fiona Dunn

    The senior Pentagon official was correct – if they want to launch it, they're going to launch it, so there's no point getting up in arms about what you can't control.

    I would not however call it a "big win". Should the US fail utterly in it's ability to keep the United States, or S. Korea for that matter, safe from attack, the term could then be used. To N. Korea, harming us or an ally would be seen as a "big win". This more recent event would be more aptly viewed as a "signigicant step".

    March 31, 2009 at 9:44 am |
  2. Jason Largo

    The military has detailed the launch characteristics of the N. Korean missile as to whether it is a satellite or a ballistic missile. If the tragectory is jusged to be a ballistic missile test, then we should shoot it down. Our control of this situation MUST be shown so they (N. Korea) doesn't continue to threaten this area of the world, our allies, and our own country.

    March 31, 2009 at 8:29 am |
  3. kirk

    i am a US citizen , work and pay all my taxes, if a country wants to send a satellite into space then it is there right as long as the object does not make its way to any country air space,,so with my government and military state we are in here so why is one missile a problem? if this is a military point then why money going to well off persons and not defense?

    March 31, 2009 at 4:36 am |
  4. Cliff John (Lynnwood, WA)

    If it goes straight up vertically, let it go. It's probably a satellite launch. If it curves, then shoot it down. It's a long-range missile test. After it is shot down, let the North Koreans guess if it was a success or not.

    March 31, 2009 at 4:36 am |
  5. JDylan

    Shoot it down. What better way to deter NK from continuing their developement of balistic missles than to show them that even if they had them it would be useless. Unless of course we really can't shoot it down and want to retain the illusion that we can.

    March 31, 2009 at 1:22 am |
  6. Laura L.

    History has proven that we in the U.S. consistently underestimate the potential problems we face abroad, with catastrophic consequences. We tend to think that governments overseas think and reason as we do, but they do not. They view our inaction as cowardice and vulnerability and that puts us at risk. That scares me!

    March 30, 2009 at 10:25 pm |
  7. Eric Z

    As long as the missile does not leave North Korean territory no one has anything to worry about. Who knows it might even land on Kim Jong Il :D.

    March 30, 2009 at 10:21 pm |
  8. Justin Continuum Q5

    Bad move for N. Korea self destruct and then what?
    They are just looking for ways to get $$$ from anyone even China.
    Not going to happen. So blow themselves up is what they come too.
    Pity Pity Pity! Bad Karma Shame on Kim!

    March 30, 2009 at 9:47 pm |
  9. Tiffany Y.

    Why do we have to wait for possible disaster? Better not to chance it, we should blow them out of the picture.

    March 30, 2009 at 9:27 pm |

    I am not worried about North Korea's missile launch. They are using it to get concessions from the UN. Their missile probably has 1950's technology. If they use it to attack another country, that would be justification to wipe North Korea off the face of the Earth.

    March 30, 2009 at 8:43 pm |
  11. Annie Kate

    I hope it does turn out to be a communications satellite. It has seemed to me that North Korea and the US are at the first stages of friendly diplomatic relations – I would hate to think N. Korea is lying and would jeopardize that. In the end we would all lose if they did lie, but them most of all because next time we really won't believe them at all (maybe State is already at this stage). If it is a missile Obama should authorize the Navy to shoot it down – 1) to show N. Korea that we can and will do it and 2) reassure the folks at home that we can and will do it.

    March 30, 2009 at 7:43 pm |
  12. Cindy

    There's not much that we can do if any country wants to test fire a rmisile or anything else. N. Korea knows that and will continue on with their plans to test fire them even though they try to disguise it as sending up satellites.


    March 30, 2009 at 7:07 pm |