The Mainichi Shimbun answers some common questions readers may have about North Korea's recent missile launch, in the context of its weapons development history.
Question: What types of missiles is North Korea developing?
Answer: North Korea is focusing upon the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in an attempt to make up for the inferiority of its domestic air, sea and ground forces.
The country has been stepping up development in this regard since the 1980s, based upon Soviet's Scud (short-range ballistic) missiles that it procured from Egypt. The Nodong, an intermediate-range ballistic missile that North Korea produced during the 1990s, has a firing range capability of around 1,300 kilometers -- encompassing nearly the whole of the Japanese archipelago.
Q: Has North Korea conducted firing tests in the past?
A: It launched the two-stage Taepodong-1 in August 1998 as a test utilizing both Nodong and Scud missiles, which surpassed the Japanese archipelago and ended up falling into the Pacific Ocean waters off the Sanriku coast. At this time, the firing range capability was thought to be more than 1,500 kilometers.
The Taepodong-2, with a firing range capability thought to reach 6,000 kilometers, was first fired in July 2006 -- but ended in failure. An improved model was launched in April 2009 and estimated to have flown more than 3,000 kilometers, passing over Japan.
In this way, we see that each time North Korea conducts a test, the firing range is extended. In addition, the country is said to be in the midst of developing the Musudan, a mobile-style missile with a firing range of between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers that is difficult to be detected in advance.
Q: Why does the firing range of these weapons continue to be extended?
A: It is thought that North Korea wishes to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that is capable of attacking the U.S. mainland -- which is located across the Pacific Ocean some 10,000 kilometers away -- in order to increase its assertiveness vis-a-vis the U.S., as well as to permit Pyongyang to negotiate with Washington as a nuclear power, since mounting a small nuclear warhead on an ICBM would render it into a nuclear missile.
Although the April 2012 launch of the Taepodong-2 was a failure, the onboard load of a missile that was launched in December of the same year was successfully placed into the earth's orbit.
The firing range in this case exceeded 10,000 kilometers, making it clear that the country is approaching ICBM capability.
Q: So, its technological capabilities are increasing?
A: Yes. In addition to the above, North Korea is also in the midst of developing a mobile ICBM known as the KN-08, as well as a submarine-launched ballistic missile, meaning that it is expanding its technical know-how. (Answers by Yutaka Matsui, Foreign News Department)