Skip to main content

One small step for Kim Jong Un

By Joe Cirincione, Special to CNN
December 13, 2012 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Well-wishers mob a smiling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (without hat) on Wednesday after the successful launch of the country's first satellite. Well-wishers mob a smiling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (without hat) on Wednesday after the successful launch of the country's first satellite.
HIDE CAPTION
Inside North Korea's missile launch
Inside North Korea's missile launch
Inside North Korea's missile launch
Inside North Korea's missile launch
Inside North Korea's missile launch
Inside North Korea's missile launch
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joe Cirincione: North Korea's successful launch of a satellite is a major feat
  • Cirincione says it is not a serious military threat to the U.S. or other nations
  • He says launch will have disproportionate international security repercussions
  • Cirincione: Don't underestimate the regime, but don't panic and start an arms race

Editor's note: Joe Cirincione is president of Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation that seeks to make progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons, and author of "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons."

(CNN) -- It took five tries and almost 15 years, but there is no question that North Korea's successful launch of a satellite into orbit on December 11 is a major technological achievement.

It is not, however, a serious military threat to the United States or other nations. North Korea still has a long way to go before they can turn the orbiting of a baby satellite, reportedly tumbling out of control, into the ability to threaten others at long distance with a nuclear weapon.

If the past is any guide, North Korea's launch of an Unha-3 rocket will have international security repercussions far out of proportion to its military capability.

North Korea's first attempt in launching a satellite in April 1998 under Kim Jong Il failed, but it triggered a panic in the U.S. Proponents of elaborate anti-missile weapons seized on the launch as proof that dictators of small, undeterrable countries could soon attack the U.S. with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Read more: Why did North Korea launch a rocket?

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



At the time, a commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld made headlines with its warning that "A nation with a well-developed, Scud-based ballistic missile infrastructure would be able to achieve first flight of a long-range missile, up to and including intercontinental ballistic missile range (greater than 5,500 kilometers), within about five years of deciding to do so."

North Korea and Iran had Scud-based missile infrastructures: They were clearly trying to do so. Fifteen years later, they have not come close to succeeding.

But the warning achieved its purpose: Missile defense programs and budgets soared and have never come down. Our nation today spends about $10 billion a year on such programs, even though the threat never developed as predicted.

Panetta: US still assessing NK launch
Japan releases N. Korean rocket info
North Korea fires long-range rocket
Rocket will provoke 'significant' action

We can expect similar warnings now that Kim Jong Un has done what his father never could. And this is the really tragic news.

Success raises stakes for U.S. missile defense system

Governments meeting in emergency session in Seoul and Tokyo will have to produce more than statements of condemnation. They will likely support more anti-missile programs. The U.S., feeling the pressure from them and from defense hawks at home, may increase efforts to field more of the systems it is developing.

We deploy about 30 ground-based interceptors in silos in Alaska and California. These systems have some ability to hit a long-range rocket, like the Unha-3 should it be turned into a missile and aimed at the U.S. Some in Congress will no doubt demand that we deploy more. We are fielding interceptors at sea aboard Aegis-class destroyers and cruisers that have some capability against short-range missiles, with plans to grow the program to longer-range missiles and deploy them in Eastern Europe. The U.S. Defense Department just recently approved arms sales to Japan to help that nation upgrade its Aegis anti-missile system. Pressures will mount to deploy more capable anti-missile systems in Asia.

Read more: North Korea silences doubters, raises fears with rocket launch

China and Russia will almost certainly react to these deployments, believing that they are aimed at them, not North Korea or Iran. This will chill efforts to negotiate reductions in Cold War stockpiles of nuclear weapons. How can we reduce, they will ask, if the U.S. is racing to ring us with new weapons?

There is no reason for this cycle of action and reaction. There is no threat that warrants the panicked deployment of untested and unreliable anti-missile weapons. As my colleague and North Korean expert Philip Yun notes, "A successful launch was only a matter of time, and it shows a level of technical sophistication that was always there. We need to take North Korea seriously but not make it more than it really is."

I pointed out in 2009, after North Korea's third failed attempt, that the nation was a long way from having a nuclear-armed ICBM. That is still true after this successful launch. North Korea would have to achieve three additional breakthroughs.

First, it would have to demonstrate the reliability of its launcher. The first four tests failed. This one succeeded. Will the next? Sometimes, you really do have to be a rocket scientist to answer questions like this.

The one I consult is David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He writes, "From past launches, we knew that North Korea has been able to build or buy working components for a rocket. The main difficulty is getting all the parts to work together and at the same time, given the enormous complexity of rockets. Even with this success, North Korea has no confidence in the reliability of the rocket, which undermines its utility for military purposes."

Second, it will have to develop a nuclear warhead small enough and reliable enough to fit on a missile. North Korea (unlike Iran) has twice tested nuclear devices, but these are believed to be too large and heavy for use in a warhead. North Korea would need several more nuclear tests to achieve this capability.

Read more: China's reaction

Third, as North Korea's long history demonstrates, it is very hard to get something up into space -- and it is just as hard to bring it safely down. North Korea will have to develop and test a re-entry vehicle that can survive the temperatures, pressures and vibration of coming back into the Earth's atmosphere and the accuracy to land where targeted.

It is a long journey from initial satellite launch to an ICBM. Ask Iran. Iran first launched a low-Earth orbit-satellite in 2009, the same feat North Korea has now duplicated, but Iran does not now, nor is it likely to have anytime soon, an ICBM. A new study from the Congressional Research Service concludes that contrary to predictions in the late 1990s that Iran or North Korea or both would have ICBMs by 2015, "It is increasingly uncertain whether Iran will be able to achieve an ICBM capability by 2015."

So, the lessons are: Don't underestimate North Korea. Don't count on this regime disappearing anytime soon. But don't panic. Don't start an arms race that undermines your greater strategic stability goals. We need to take a deep breath and work with our allies to get North Korea back to the bargaining table and off the test ranges.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joe Cirincione.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT