North Korea’s failed missile may foreshadow nuclear test


WASHINGTON — The spectacular failure of a North Korean rocket, and the humiliation it presumably caused the nation’s young new leader, makes it likely the regime will soon test a nuclear device or take other provocative actions, according to U.S. officials and outside analysts.

The United Nations Security Council condemned North Korea for Friday’s launch, saying it violated two previous U.N. resolutions. And the White House said it would not honor a promise to provide 240,000 metric tons of food aid to the impoverished nation.

President Obama defended the decision to cancel U.S. humanitarian aid to a country that suffers perennial food shortages. His administration has not previously provided any aid to the country.

“They make all these investments, tens of millions of dollars, in rockets that don’t work at a time when their people are starving, literally, and so what we intend to do is work with the international community to further isolate North Korea,” Obama said in an interview with the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo.

“Obviously any opportunity for us to provide them food aid was contingent on them abiding by international rules and international norms,” he added. “So we will continue to keep the pressure on them, and they’ll continue to isolate themselves until they take a different path.”

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor, said the administration was “certainly concerned” about indications that North Korea was planning to follow the failed launch with an underground nuclear test, as it did after unsuccessful launches in 2006 and 2009.

Experts say satellite imagery of North Korea’s northeast Punggye-ri site, where nuclear tests were conducted in the past, shows deep tunneling, and other preparations may be underway for a third nuclear test, possibly based on the country’s yet-unproven highly enriched uranium program.

“A nuclear test next month is a virtual certainty,” said Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert at the nonpartisan Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

He said the government in Pyongyang suffered “tremendous humiliation” with the failure of the rocket launch that was meant to celebrate the centennial of the birth of the nation’s founder, Kim Il Sung. Noland predicted the regime would try to recoup its credibility, at home and abroad, by testing a nuclear device.

Some analysts warned that the widespread opprobrium risked isolating any voices of reason in Pyongyang and might embolden hard-liners to dig in even more.

“It’s hard to know whether the international reaction leads them to feel like they’re just going to proceed with the nuclear test they’ve been preparing,” said David Wright, an arms control expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit research group. “If it does, it’s going to be very difficult to make progress for a number of years.”

U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe North Korea has built as many as eight plutonium-based nuclear bombs. In 2010, the regime revealed a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon that, in theory, could produce weapons-grade fuel for a much larger arsenal.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, but it was only partly successful. A second test in 2009 was deemed a greater success. The regime tested long-range missiles in 1998, 2006 and 2009. All of them exploded in flight, although the last flew 2,500 miles before breaking up.

U.S. intelligence officials in the past predicted that North Korean missiles could threaten the continental United States by 2015. The latest setback suggests that time frame is now unlikely, experts said.

The Unha-3 missile launched Friday had a slightly larger third stage than the last version that failed, U.S. officials said. This one exploded 90 seconds after blastoff, rising about 75 miles into the atmosphere before breaking into pieces that fell into the ocean.

North Korea said it was trying to put a civilian weather satellite in orbit, but U.S., Japanese and South Korean officials said the missile had military applications and, if successful, could be reconfigured to someday carry a nuclear payload.

“North Korea has successfully launched shorter-range Scud and Nodong missiles that were successful, but long-range missile success continues to elude them,” said Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst now at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

North Korea, which strictly controls state media, told its citizens after the 2009 rocket failure that it had successfully put a small satellite into orbit and that it was broadcasting patriotic songs.

This time, the regime invited international journalists into the country to help publicize the launch. On Friday, a state broadcaster announced that the rocket had failed.

“To me, it’s a reflection that they don’t have confidence that they can keep big secrets anymore,” said Victor Cha, former director of Asian affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

Inevitably, outsiders struggled to make sense of the regime’s insular decision-making process. Some debated whether the launch would undermine the authority of Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his late father, Kim Jong Il, as undisputed ruler in December.

“Who actually ordered this missile test?” asked John Park, a Korea expert at the congressionally funded U.S. Institute for Peace. “Was Kim Jong Un following his father’s playbook? Or was this an early example of the military acting on its own?”

In the past, the North Korean government has used its powerful military to demonstrate an aggressive foreign policy. It has repeatedly fired on South Korean troops and ships, and it regularly threatened all-out war against its neighbors and the U.S.

The failed launch may provide another point of friction. South Korean and other ships searched Friday for wreckage from the missile off the South Korean coastline, and officials were on alert for a potential clash with North Korean submarines.

“You have a recipe for growing tension on the Korean peninsula,” Klingner said.

Times staff writers Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles and Christi Parsons in Tampa, Fla., contributed to this report.