KCNA / Reuters A Taepodong-2 rocket is launched from a North Korean rocket launch facility, Musudan Ri, North Korea, April 9, 2009.

North Korea's Lessons for (Not) Building an Atomic Bomb

The Predictable Missile Mishap That No One Predicted

The dismal failure of North Korea's April 13 long-range missile test -- it broke into pieces after 81 seconds of flight time -- has also exposed the poverty of standard proliferation analyses. In the days leading up to the test, most commentators apparently took Pyongyang's technological forward march for granted. Even the more sober voices evinced little doubt that this test would go at least as well as the country's 2009 effort, which managed to put a rocket into flight for about fifteen minutes before it malfunctioned. Meanwhile, other technical experts regaled readers with tales of the "emerging" bona fide North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile force, which might soon be able to target the continental United States. And there were renewed calls for the United States and its East Asian allies to embrace the "Israeli option": pre-emptive military strikes against North Korean strategic weapons facilities. The actual results of the test, however, demonstrate that the analysts' nightmare scenarios were hardly more credible than North Korea's own propaganda volleys.


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To be sure, a single technical failure need not condemn an entire strategic weapons program. Pyongyang's missile mishap, however, was not a lone failure; it was merely the latest in a long line of botched strategic weapons tests. The country's long-range missile test record is frankly pathetic: a total failure in 2006, a partial failure in 2009, and a total failure in 2012. (A 1998 test of a medium-range missile that had been jerry-rigged to fly a longer distance was also a partial failure.) And its nuclear test record is almost as bad: a virtual fizzle in 2006, and a very modest blast at best in 2009.

Amazingly, the assumption that Pyongyang already owns the very weapons that it has consistently failed to demonstrate has long driven U.S. policy. The Clinton administration's North Korea diplomacy was "better than even chance" that Pyongyang had built the bomb. The George W. Bush administration then ripped up the Clinton-era policy because it thought that the North Koreans had cheated and built even more bombs than Clinton realized. Most recently, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone so far as to state that "we know" that Pyongyang possesses "between one and six nuclear weapons," creating the impression that new leader Kim Jong Un could give the order to take out Seoul or Tokyo at any time. Given Washington's blind certainty about the North Korean menace, it is little wonder that few analysts anticipated its latest belly flop.

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