North Korea's latest launch of a missile, which is believed to have put objects into orbit around the Earth, has suggested the country's missile technology is becoming increasingly reliable and posing a growing threat to the international community, say experts.
"Detailed analysis is needed to ascertain whether and how far North Korea has improved its ballistic missile technology, but it's certain that its launch technology has become more reliable," a senior official of the Defense Ministry says of the latest missile launch.
Launching ballistic missiles requires highly advanced rocket technology. This is the fifth time that North Korea has launched a Taepodong-2 or its improved models since 2006. The first three launches failed to put their loads into orbit. However, Pyongyang was successful in doing so in its previous fourth launch in December 2012, highlighting the improvement in the country's missile technology.
Although the size of the missile launched on Feb. 7 remains unknown, the height of the launch pad has increased from 50 meters at the time of the previous launch to 67 meters, according to the Yonhap News Agency in South Korea. Moreover, its range is estimated to be approximately 13,000 kilometers, some 3,000 kilometers more than the previous one, meaning the missile could possibly hit the U.S. East Coast. The weight of the load, which is believed to have been about 100 kilograms in the previous launch, may have been as heavy as 200 kilograms this time.
Akira Sawaoka, president of Daido University who is well versed in each country's space development project, says North Korea's technology is steadily advancing. With regard to the fact that the missile was launched one day earlier than North Korea had initially announced, Sawaoka said, "There are numerous checkpoints in launching missiles, and the launch is occasionally delayed. Probably, preparations were steadily made before the launch this time."
Teikyo University professor Toshiyuki Shikata, former commanding general of the Ground Self-Defense Force Northern Army, also points out that North Korea has improved its technology. "The missile's thrust has increased, making it possible to load the warhead with many devices. If the devices have made it into space, it means that North Korea's technology made one step forward."
The rocket engine and other objects are believed to have separated from the missile and plunged three to six minutes earlier than the previous missile. This can be viewed as a sign that the missile's speed increased because of technological advancement.
However, a high-ranking official of the Defense Ministry says it cannot be determined that North Korea's technology has improved, noting that the missile's speed increases if the amount of fuel is raised.
Furthermore, some experts point to the possibility that the missile developed technical problems. They note that a fragment believed to be the second-stage of the missile plunged into an area outside the expected zone.
"If the fragment had fallen into the anticipated zone, it would prove North Korea has established technology for controlling missiles, but it deviated from that zone this time. This has raised questions about the accuracy of the country's missile technology," the senior ministry official said.
Tetsuo Yasaka, professor emeritus of space engineering at Kyushu University, also says, "If the satellite had been put into the correct orbit, fragments should've plunged into anticipated zones."
Moreover, if North Korea intends to use technology for intercontinental ballistic missiles, technology of guarding warheads from intense heat generated at the time of re-entry into the atmosphere is indispensable. However, it remains unclear whether North Korea has such technology.