Editorial: Did North Korea really show off a fake missile?

Published: Saturday, April 28 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Sunday, April 15, 2012, what appears to be a new missile is carried during a mass military parade at the Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang, North Korea, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung. The photo shows the warhead's surface is undulated, suggesting it's a thin metal sheet unable to withstand flight pressure, analysts say. Adding more doubt to North Korea's claims of military prowess after its flamboyant rocket launch failure, analysts say the half dozen missiles showcased at the military parade were low-quality fakes. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Associated Press

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Could it be that North Korea paraded fake and amateurishly constructed missiles through its streets earlier this month in an attempt to show the world it was capable of long-range attacks? That's what analysts who have looked at photos from the event are saying, and it may put the hermit nation's weapons program in a new light.

For years, experts have debated over how close they believe North Korea may be to developing long-range nuclear capabilities. Earlier this month, North Korea attempted to fire a satellite into orbit on a long-range missile, only to have it break apart shortly after launch. That was not the first such attempt. North Korea has spent decades trying to perfect a multi-stage, long-range rocket. In 1998 it sent one hurtling over Japanese airspace. In 2009 it fired one in which two of the three stages succeeded. The rocket never made it into orbit, however, as the third stage failed over the Pacific.

The parade of fake rockets, then, is a curious development. Obviously, North Korea has the technology to assemble at least partially successful rockets. According to the experts, however, what was on display was so bad it qualified as silly.

The Associated Press quoted Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker of Germany's Schmucker Technologie as saying the weapons showed a combination of liquid and solid-fuel components that are incapable of flying together. The missiles appeared to have been built out of metal too thin to withstand the stresses of flight. They were all different from each other, even though North Korea maintained they all were of the same make. To top it off, they didn't fit the launchers that were carrying them.

All the missiles were paraded at the end of a display meant to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's first leader. The display came not long after the government of Kim Jong-un made blustering threats about destroying the government of South Korea.

Analysts are now left to wonder whether the amateurish display was purposely done to confuse observers, or whether the nation is far less capable of creating an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile than previously thought.

History offers a little glimpse into what may be going on. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein once had the United States and other Western countries convinced he had weapons of mass destruction. He appeared to have built facilities to manufacture them, and he cleverly led international inspectors on wild-goose chases around the nation in what appeared to be elaborate attempts to cover up evidence. As it turned out, he was bluffing, but he was willing to keep up the ruse at the expense of his government and his life.

The world cannot afford to underestimate a nation that spews threats and appears to be actively working to obtain nuclear weapons. But North Korea, now as in the past, is led by a single personality with a large ego. The bluster may be far ahead of the reality.

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