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

The Predictable Missile Mishap That No One Predicted

Jacques E. C. Hymans
JACQUES E. C. HYMANS is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation (Cambridge University Press, 2012), from which this essay is adapted.

The Tongch'ang-ni launch facility on North Korea's north west coast (AP/DigitalGlobe)

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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