The crash of a North Korean rocket has touched off a top-secret scavenger hunt by U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies eager to recover parts for insights into the communist nation’s military program, two U.S. officials said.
Fragments fished out of the sea could provide priceless clues to whether the rocket launched yesterday was engineered and made entirely in North Korea -- or whether some of its materials, designs, or components were designed or manufactured in China, Russia, Iran or elsewhere, according to the officials, who spoke about the confidential pursuit of spare parts on condition of anonymity.
“This has the potential to give us very deep insights into how far the North Korean ballistic-missile program has come,” Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said yesterday in an interview. “My guess is it’s going to show it’s not come as far as many people are claiming.”
Recovered pieces stand to reveal as much, if not more, about the status of North Korea’s technological development than studies of the test flight. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during his confirmation hearing in June that the Asian nation’s 1 million troops, ballistic-missile program and nuclear enrichment activities pose a “growing and direct threat” to the U.S.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Beijing during a January 2011 visit that North Korea probably would develop an intercontinental ballistic missile within the next five years.
While land- and ship-based radar can help determine the trajectory, speed and height of a launch, recovery of parts may help establish whether North Korea has moved much beyond Cold War-era Soviet technology from the 1950s that it has relied on primarily for its rockets.
“If you could get hold of it, it would be fascinating to see, because we haven’t seen some of these parts up close,” David Wright, a physicist and specialist on missile and space weapons at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said yesterday in an interview.
Based on the exterior of the second stage and the rocket’s trajectory, scientists believe it stems from a Soviet-era submarine-launched missile that has been reported for years to have been transferred to North Korea, Wright said.
“You would love to see exactly what materials it was made of,” Wright said. “If you can find traces of chemicals, what does that tell you about the propellants that were used? If you can look at the engine design, you can learn something about how sophisticated of a design it was.”
Depending on what’s found and the condition it’s in, the parts also could offer valuable insights into the rocket’s control surfaces and systems, its guidance system and telemetry and its potential range and payload, one of the officials said.
A pressing question is whether the rocket was carrying a weather satellite, as North Korean officials said it was, the second official said.
This rocket doesn’t seem likely to have carried a dummy nuclear warhead, based on its trajectory, according to Peter Crail, a nonproliferation analyst at the Arms Control Association, a research group in Washington.
Even before the North Korean launch, “I would imagine that we had been putting assets in place to try and learn as much as we can,” Crail said.
The U.S. might try to recover the parts using submersible devices dropped from its ships to study the sea floor and pick up debris. That might be a risky operation, based on the information released by North American Aerospace Defense Command after the launch, Wright said.
“The splashdown point looked pretty close to North Korea, 30 kilometers or so off the coast,” or 19 miles, Wright said. “Even though it’s international waters, you can imagine them sending ships out to that region and trying to keep other people away.”