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North Korea rocket failure may ease world's nuclear fear

It may not be as close to selling weapons technology to other nations as some thought. But despite the botched launch, it's likely to keep trying, analysts say.

April 13, 2012|By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, attends the unveiling of statues of former leaders Kim Jong Il, his father, and Kim Il Sung, his grandfather, in Pyongyang. The country is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, attends the unveiling of statues… (Ed Jones, AFP/Getty Images )

Fear that North Korea might be positioning itself to market weapons technology to other developing nations may have been eased by its latest failure — the fourth in 15 years — to build a functioning rocket.

But the demonstration that Pyongyang has not mastered and may not be able to afford such a sophisticated weapons program may not be enough to deter it from continuing to try, according to arms control and security analysts.

North Korea's neighbors as well as the United States and other world powers are worried that its efforts to launch a rocket mask a program to build a delivery system for a nuclear warhead. North Korea has already conducted two underground nuclear tests, and some predict a third is in the offing.

What the failed launch tells analysts is that the prospect of North Korea earning foreign currency with sales of nuclear-armed missiles "is not as far along as some feared," said David Wright, an arms control technology expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

That may elicit a sigh of relief from the rest of the world, he said, but the setback is unlikely to convince Pyongyang to abandon its ambitions.

"The technology they are using for the stages of their launchers is just not functioning properly," Wright said. "Whether they want to launch a satellite or send a warhead, they have to get the stages to work. Rockets are so complicated. A lot of different things can go wrong with them."

North Korea's nuclear pursuits have been among the global community's biggest proliferation worries, said James Acton, a physicist who heads the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Acton pointed to indications over the last two years that North Korea was shipping components to Syria and Myanmar, also known as Burma, in contravention of U.N. resolutions and nonproliferation efforts. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups have also expressed interest in acquiring nuclear weapons.

Sanctions and tightened export controls adopted after North Korean launches and weapons tests in 2006 and 2009 have clearly hobbled its nuclear programs and delayed its progress toward supplying other states, said Robert A. Shaw, an export control instructor at the nonproliferation research center of the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Japanese authorities have intercepted key components for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction that North Korea was trying to acquire through illegal front companies, Shaw said. Success in cutting the supply chain and stalling production of marketable nuclear equipment could eventually encourage the country's new leader, Kim Jong Un, to rethink the most productive path out of poverty and isolation, Shaw suggested.

"When you introduce delays, there is that chance that someone inside the North Korean regime, someone or some faction, could step up and say, this is too costly and counterproductive and maybe we should take a different approach" to economic development, he said.

Scott A. Snyder, director of the U.S.-Korea policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said some of North Korea's potential markets had dried up.

Myanmar's recent reforms and Egypt's overthrow of its authoritarian leadership have eliminated key consumers of North Korean technology, as has the yearlong rebellion in Syria, he said.

Another potential customer, Libya, renounced nuclear weapons production as part of its effort to normalize relations with the United States five years ago.

But the fate of Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi, who was overthrown with the help of a NATO air campaign and killed by his own people last year, could serve as an incentive for North Korea to cling to its pursuit of nuclear weapons, Snyder said.

"North Korea has to make a strategic choice between integration with the outside world and isolation," Snyder said. "So far, what I see is some willingness to pursue resource extraction [with China and Russia] while limiting exposure to the outside world."

carol.williams@latimes.com

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