Post Blows NK Headline

_Guest post from the Arms Control Association’s Peter Crail_

The Washington Post’s Blaine Harden wrote a decent “story”: on North Korea’s expected rocket launch and various assessments of where Pyongyang stands in being able to miniaturize a nuclear weapon for its missiles. Unfortunately, he appears to have been sabotaged by his own news editors, who ran the story with a headline way out of left field: “North Korean Nuclear Test A Growing Possibility.”

Say what?

The story doesn’t suggest anything of the sort. Here’s the thrust of the article:

bq. While North Korea has been making missiles to intimidate its neighbors for nearly half a century, what makes this launch particularly worrying is the increasing possibility — as assessed by U.S. intelligence and some independent experts — that it has built or is attempting to build nuclear warheads small enough to fit atop its growing number of missiles.

Worrisome, but nothing suggestive of an upcoming nuclear test. There is also this qualification:

bq. Experts agree that North Korea is probably years away from putting nuclear warheads on long-range missiles that could hit the United States.

Then of course there’s a discussion of the TD-2 launch, a long-range missile that could hit the United States, including:

bq. North Korea says it plans to put a communications satellite into orbit, but that claim is widely viewed as a pretext for testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Taepodong-2. The U.S. director of national intelligence, Dennis C. Blair, told a Senate committee that a three-stage missile of this type, if it works, could strike the continental United States.

Okay, then what on earth explains the heading when the story continues on page A10: “Likelihood Grows that N. Korean Launch will be Nuclear” ?

Celebrating April Fool’s Day a bit early, I guess.

Here’s what DNI Blair also said in that “SASC testimony”: about the likelihood of the launch:

bq. I tend to believe that the — the North Koreans announced that they were going to do a space launch, and I believe that that’s what they — that’s what they intend. I could be wrong, but that would be my estimate.

And, STRATCOM Commander Kevin Chilton “provided some context”: for the launch:

SEN. REED: If it is a — turns out to be a launch of a satellite does that automatically assume that they have the capacity to launch a ballistic missile, intercontinental ballistic missile? Or is there much more work that has to be done to design a reentry vehicle and design a system that will deliver a missile?

GEN. CHILTON: Yes, Senator, there’s other elements that would have to be matured. As you point out rightly, a reentry vehicle, which is not a trivial thing. *Obviously, the difference between a reentry vehicle for a short or medium range and a long range are different because it’s a different, much hotter environment for a long range flight to survive.*

So working on the reentry vehicle and then weaponization is an issue as well.

But *we have no insights into their efforts in this area but certainly they also require a booster with that to perform its capability.*

SEN. REED: At this juncture we have their statement, which offers a range of possibilities.

And, in fact, from your previous testimony, this statement is a warning that they didn’t give prior to the previous launch, and it would be — the statement would be — ironically, I think, more consistent with the practice of nations who are preparing to launch vehicles. Is that correct?

GEN. CHILTON: You’re correct. *They did not make a similar statement last time, and today space-faring nations around the world do make announcements of their plans for launching into space.*

SEN. REED: So, again, this is hard to ascribe to North Korea, but they seem to be following, at least procedurally, what other nations do in terms of the preparation for a launch of a satellite or any type of space vehicle. Correct?

GEN. CHILTON: I would say that there’s — there may be an attempt there, not probably as specific, procedurally, as done. But I would also pile-on to General Sharp’s comment that, you know, there’s this — the U.N. resolution there that is really the big, big difference.

SEN. REED: Yeah. This might be completely inadvertently complying with “the rules of the road,” but it is something I think that should be — that you’ve noted, and I think it bears emphasis.

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