The real implications of the North Korean (and Iranian) missile launch
As North Korea prepares for its upcoming space-missile, satellite pictures of its launching pad reveal that its relationship to Iran is more similar than we think.
As more details and satellite footage emerge of the preparations for the North Korean space-missile launch in ten days, the connection between its research program and that of Iran is increasingly evident. But while the technological advantages from the launch for Iran are less clear, the wider implications of the launch, if it should go ahead, are for the stillborn agreement between Washington and Pyongyang, and the dying hope that it could serve as a precedent for solving the Iranian nuclear issue.
On Wednesday night, Tal Inbar, the head of the space research center at the Fisher Institute and one of the leading Israeli experts on ballistic missile posted fresh images of the Sohae launching station in North Korea. The photos, which were taken by Israeli reconnaissance satellite Eros B, were of the launching pad from which the Unha-3 rocket is expected to take take off, sometime around the April 15, coinciding with the 100th birthday of Eternal President Kim Il-Sung. Similar to previous satellite photographs, there are clear signs of preparations for a launch. Inbar, who has spoken in the past about the deep cooperation between Iran and North Korea over missile development, says that "if the two programs are not brothers, they are first-cousins" and that the Sohae launch-pad is almost totally identical to an Iranian installation in Semnan, which yet to be used.
Despite the identification, Inbar dismisses the reports that the North Korean launch is actually an Iranian test-launch in disguise. "While they are closely linked, the Iranians are much more advanced than the North Koreans in rocketry, using both liquid and solid fuel. Iran has succeeded in launching three satellites and North Korea has failed in its only attempt. The North Koreans have carried out so few test-launches that it is questionable how they have made their missiles operational. It would be more accurate to say that the Iranian launches have served the Koreans." That said, Inbar believes that the North Korean launch will be of use also to their Iranian counterparts as the Unha-3 is very similar to the Simorgh rocket which is scheduled to carry an Iranian communications satellite into space next year. "Their development is connected and the Iranians who will certainly receive the results after the launch will be able to learn how the missile behaves once in the air. Of course there is the military aspect since, as Inbar says, "you don't have two separate rocket technologies for ground-to-ground and for space. Once you advance in one of them, you have totally gone forward in the other."
However, Inbar is not that impressed by the size or the range of the Unha-3. Despite the calculations that an ICBM version (Taepodong-3) could reach targets of 5,000-6,000 kilometers, which would put part of the continental U.S. in range, he believes it would not be able to carry a nuclear warhead that far. For a nuclear strike, it would more likely be able to reach half that distance, slightly further than the Rodong-1 or the Iranian Shahab-3, which are already in service.
But even if the American sources who have been talking about North Korea having the ability to launch a nuclear missile at the U.S. are overplaying the threat, it is increasingly hard to see how Barack Obama can go ahead and deliver food assistance once Pyongyang launches. This will signal another blow to the yet-to-be confirmed new round of talks between the P5+1 and Iran, which are ironically scheduled to take place just when Uhna-3 will be lifting off.