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Despite launch, experts say North Korea still years away from capable missiles

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Dec. 12, 2012: This still frame made of video shows a display of the Unha-3 rocket launch at North Korea's space agency's General Launch Command Center on the outskirts of Pyongyang.AP

They don't call it rocket science for nothing.

North Korea's first successful launch of a three-stage, long-range rocket has outraged world leaders who consider it similar to a missile capable of attacking the United States, Europe and other far-away targets. But experts say Pyongyang is years away from even having a shot at developing reliable missiles that could bombard the American mainland.

A missile program is built on decades of systematic, intricate testing, something extremely difficult for economically struggling Pyongyang, which faces guaranteed sanctions and world disapprobation each time it stages an expensive launch.

"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 Wednesday came only after 14 years of painstaking labor, repeated failures and hundreds of millions of dollars.

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

Though Pyongyang insists the project is peaceful, it also has conducted two nuclear tests and has defied demands that it give up its nuclear weapons program.

The U.N. Security Council said in a brief statement after closed consultations Wednesday that the launch violates council resolutions against the North's use of ballistic missile technology, and said it would urgently consider "an appropriate response."

"This launch is about a weapons program, not peaceful use of space," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. Even the North's most important ally, China, expressed regret.

North Korea has long possessed the components needed to construct long-range rockets. Scientists in Pyongyang, however, have been trying and failing since 1998 to conduct a successful launch. Only this week, on the fifth try, did they do so, prompting dancing in the streets of the capital.

Making even a single long-range missile or rocket hit its target is mind-bogglingly complicated. But it pales in comparison to the task of building an arsenal of missiles that could be relied on in a war to strike the far-off places they're programmed to attack.

North Korea's far more advanced rival, South Korea, has failed twice since 2009 to launch a satellite on a rocket from its own territory, and postponed two attempts in recent weeks because of technical problems.

North Korea has trumpeted its long-range capabilities. Earlier this year, former North Korean military chief Ri Yong Ho bragged that the country was "armed with powerful modern weapons ... that can defeat the (U.S.) imperialists at a single blow."

Each advancement Pyongyang makes causes worry in Washington and among North Korea's neighbors. In 2010, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that within five years the North could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States.

Wednesday's launch suggests the North is on track for that, said former U.S. defense official James Schoff, now an expert on East Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But he and other experts say the North must still surmount tough technical barriers to build the ultimate military threat: a sophisticated nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a long-range missile, something experts say will be the focus of future nuclear tests.

And despite Wednesday's launch, Pyongyang is also lacking the other key part of that equation: a credible long-range missile.

"If in the future they develop a nuclear warhead small enough to put on a rocket, they are not going to want to put that on a missile that has a high probability of exploding on the launch pad," David Wright, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who has written extensively about North Korea's missile program, said in an email.

To create a credible missile program, experts say, North Korean technicians need to conduct many more tests that will allow them to iron out the wrinkles until they have a missile that works more often than it fails. Pyongyang's past tests have been somewhat scattershot, possibly because of the heavy international sanctions the rocket and nuclear tests have generated.

North Korea must build a larger missile than the one launched Wednesday if it wants to eventually carry nuclear weapons to distant targets, analysts said.

The satellite North Korea mounted on the rocket weighs only 100 kilograms (220 pounds), according to the office of South Korean lawmaker Jung Chung-rae, who was briefed by a senior South Korean intelligence official. A nuclear warhead would be about five times heavier.

Other missing parts of the puzzle include an accurate long-range missile guidance system and a re-entry vehicle able to survive coming back into the atmosphere at the high speeds -- 10,000 mph -- traveled by intercontinental ballistic missiles. Both are seen as being years off.

"Those are pretty serious tasks," Wright said.

History also shows that first-generation, long-range missiles need dozens of test flights before they are accurate enough to be deployed.

The world's "ICBM club" has just four countries: the United States, Russia, China and France, according to Markus Schiller, an analyst with Schmucker Technologie in Germany and a leading expert on North Korean missiles.

If North Korea "really intended to become a player in the ICBM game, they would have to develop a different kind of missile, with higher performance," Schiller said. "And if they do that seriously, we would have to see flight tests every other month, over several years."

Wright said the Unha-3 rocket launched Wednesday has a potential range of 8,000 to 10,000 kilometers (4,970 to 6,210 miles), which could put Hawaii and the northwest coast of the mainland United States within range.

But even if North Korea builds a ballistic missile based on a liquid-fueled rocket like the 105-foot-tall Unha-3, it would take days to assemble and hours to fuel. That would make it vulnerable to attack in a pre-emptive airstrike. Solid-fueled missiles developed by the U.S. and Soviet Union are more mobile, more easily concealed and ready to launch within minutes.

But Victor Cha, a former White House director for Asia policy, warned there has been an unspoken tendency in the United States to regard North Korea as a technologically backward and bizarre country, underestimating the strategic threat it poses.

"This is no longer acceptable," he wrote in a commentary.

Money, however, is another problem for Pyongyang. A weak economy, chronic food shortages and the sanctions make it difficult to sustain a program that can build and operate reliable missiles.

"I don't think the young leader (Kim Jong Un) has any confidence that the home economy could afford a credible deterrent capability," said Zhu Feng, deputy director of the Center for International and Strategic Studies at Peking University.

Zhu said Pyongyang's recent launch was a negotiating chip, not an immediate threat. He said it was intended to stoke tensions abroad in order to improve Pyongyang's position in future international negotiations.

Weeden said North Korea may want to create the perception that it poses a threat to the United States, but is not likely to go further than that.

"I expect North Korea to milk this situation for everything they can get," he said. "But I don't think that perception will be matched by the actual hard work and testing needed to develop and field a reliable, effective weapon system like the ICBMs deployed by the US, Russia and China."

North Korea already poses a major security threat to its East Asian neighbors. It has one of the world's largest standing armies and a formidable if aging arsenal of artillery that could target Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Nearly 30,000 U.S. forces are based in South Korea, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended with an armistice, not a formal peace treaty.

The North's short-range rockets could also potentially target another core U.S. ally, Japan.

Darryl Kimball, executive director of the nongovernmental Arms Control Association, said those capabilities, rather than the North's future ability to strike the U.S., still warrant the most attention.