The South Korean Defense Ministry says analysis of debris from the rocket North Korea launched on Dec. 12 shows that the renegade country now has the technology to deliver a 500 kg to 600 kg warhead more than 10,000 km.
Debris the military retrieved in the West Sea on Dec. 14 came from the first-stage booster's oxidizing tank, which supplies oxygen to ensure the rocket fuel can keep burning at airless altitudes. Residue of the oxidizing agent was not liquefied oxygen, which more advanced countries might use, but red-fuming nitric acid (RFNA), which is highly toxic and can cause sterility in humans.
North Korea's Scud and Rodong missiles also use RFNA as oxidizing agents. The find also revealed that the oxidizing tank resembled those of Iranian missiles. The military here is therefore more convinced than ever that the rocket launch was a cover to test intercontinental ballistic missile technology. That is what North Korea has been so lavishly celebrating.
A simulation of the thrust of a first-stage rocket filled with 48 tons of RFNA suggests that such a missile could deliver a 500 kg warhead to a target more than 10,000 km away. Whether it would be viable depends on whether North Korea succeeds in miniaturizing a nuclear warhead to 500 kg or less and develops technology allowing the projectile to withstand temperatures of 6,000 to 7,000 degrees Celsius when it reenters the atmosphere. Then North Korea would be capable of a nuclear attack on the western part of the continental U.S.
South Korea and the U.S. believe North Korea has already extracted around 40 kg of plutonium from its Yongbyon nuclear plant, which would be enough to produce six to seven nuclear weapons, and has also produced enough highly enriched uranium over the last two years to make another four to six nuclear bombs. Some U.S. experts warn that the North will now want to conduct another nuclear test using uranium.
This would be the perfect time for North Korea to join hands with the international community, since South Korea, China, Japan and the U.S. have either just chosen a new leader or at least re-elected the old one. But if it launches yet another provocation, they will have no choice but to bring additional sanctions and will find it hard to justify any aid to the impoverished country. Pyongyang has nothing to celebrate, and should abandon any ideas about pursuing its nuclear ambitions.