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N. Korea still years away from reliable missiles

SEOUL, South Korea — After 14 years of painstaking labor, North Korea finally has a rocket that can put a satellite in orbit. But that doesn't mean the reclusive country is close to having an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Experts say Pyongyang is years from even having a shot at developing reliable missiles that could bombard the American mainland and other distant targets, though it did gain attention and the outrage of world leaders Wednesday with its first successful launch of a three-stage, long-range rocket.

A missile program is built on decades of systematic, intricate testing, something extremely difficult for economically struggling Pyongyang, which faces guaranteed sanctions and world disapproval each time it stages an expensive launch. North Korea will need larger and more dependable missiles, and more advanced nuclear weapons, to threaten U.S. shores, though it already poses a threat to its neighbors.

"One success indicates progress, but not victory, and there is a huge gap between being able to make a system work once and having a system that is reliable enough to be militarily useful," said Brian Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force Space Command officer and a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation, a think tank on space policy.

North Korea's satellite launch came only after repeated failures and hundreds of millions of dollars. It is an achievement for young authoritarian leader Kim Jong Un, whose late father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, made development of missiles and nuclear weapons a priority despite international opposition and his nation's poverty.

Kim said the achievement "further consolidated" the country's status "as a space power," the government's official Korean Central News Agency reported Thursday.

South Korea's Defense Ministry said Thursday the satellite was orbiting normally at a speed of 4.7 miles per second, though the mission it is performing isn't known. North Korean space officials say the satellite would be used to study crops and weather patterns.

U.S. citizen said to be held: A U.S. citizen has been held in North Korea for a month, a human rights activist in Seoul said Thursday, addressing unconfirmed reports circulating in the South Korean media.

The assertion comes at a sensitive time for Washington, which is trying to rally support for a new round of penalties against North Korea over its launching of a long-range rocket.

The American, Kenneth Bae, 44, runs a travel company that takes tourists to North Korea. He had visited the North several times without incident before being detained in November, activist Do Hee-youn said.

Information from New York Times was used in this report.

N. Korea still years away from reliable missiles 12/13/12 [Last modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012 11:27pm]
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