South Korean technicians scrutinising the debris of the North Korean rocket launched this month have found evidence suggesting the rocket’s military purposes and the North’s technological ties with Iran in its efforts to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, South Korean officials have said.

North Korea insists that its Unha-3 rocket, launched on December 12 to put an Earth-observation satellite in orbit, was part of its peaceful space programme. But intelligence officials and rocket scientists affiliated with the South Korean Defence Ministry said through the rocket launching, North Korea was testing a ballistic missile that could fly more than 9920 km, with a warhead of about 1,100 to 1,300 pounds, putting the West Coast of the U.S. in range.

They spoke to the news media after analysing the rocket’s flight data and the debris of its oxidiser tank, which were recovered in waters off South Korea two days after the launch.

Over the weekend, the South Korean navy also salvaged the remnants of the rocket’s fuel tank and part of its engine, which the officials hoped would provide more clues to the North’s rocket technology.

The officials said they had concluded that the first-stage engine was made of four North Korean Rodong missile engines latched together, and that the North Koreans used their Scud-type missile engine for the second-stage booster.

“They efficiently developed a three-stage long-range missile by using their existing Rodong and Scud missile technology,” a senior military intelligence official said Sunday, briefing reporters on the condition of anonymity.

For an oxidiser, North Korea used red fuming nitric acid, commonly used as rocket propellant in old Soviet-built Scud missiles, as well as in Iranian and North Korean missiles, said the official. Most space-programme rockets use liquid oxygen as an oxidizer, he said. Unlike liquid oxygen, which must be kept extremely cold, red fuming nitric acid can be stored at room temperature, which makes it a convenient propellant for missiles, he said.

The design of the oxidiser tank also suggested an “Iran connection” in North Korea’s rocket programme, he said.

Officials found the welding on the oxidizer tank to be “crude”, “uneven” and “done by hand”. They also found some foreign-made components, despite North Korea’s claim that its rocket was “indigenously produced 100 per cent”. But they said it signalled a great technological advance for North Korea to launch a three-stage rocket successfully and put an object into orbit. All of North Korea’s previous rocket tests had failed to reach orbit, according to Western officials.

Analysts doubted that North Korea had mastered the technology needed to make a nuclear bomb small enough to mount on a missile. South Korean officials also said on Sunday that there was no confirmation of whether the North had the technology needed for a warhead to survive re-entry into the atmosphere.

United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions ban the country, a U.N. member, from any rocket launching that uses ballistic missile technology. They mandated economic sanctions aimed at blocking North Korea from acquiring or proliferating nuclear and missile technology, but analysts have long suspected that Iran and North Korea were closely cooperating in their missile and nuclear programmes, sharing components and test data.

The successful launching was a great push for the North’s young leader, Kim Jong-un. On Friday, Mr. Kim held a huge banquet for the scientists and called for the development and launching of “a variety of more working satellites” and “carrier rockets of bigger capacity”. — New York Times News Service

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