North Korea's missile tests suggested the country cannot directly threaten the United States - for now. But the Koreans can learn from mistakes, whether the tests were posturing, serious military efforts or both, US officials and military experts said.
North Korea test-fired a seventh missile on Wednesday after it had defied international protests by launching a long-range missile and at least five shorter-range weapons.
The long-range Taepodong-2 missile -- the object of intense international attention for more than a month -- failed 42 seconds after lift-off, suggesting a catastrophic failure of the rocket's first, or booster, stage.
That heartened US officials, since an earlier version of the long-range missile -- last tested in 1998 -- failed later in its flight, apparently due to a third-stage malfunction. A working version of the intercontinental missile could potentially reach the United States with a light payload.
"One thing we have learned is that the rocket didn't stay up for very long," President George W. Bush said. "It tumbled into the sea."
Still, rocket scientists cautioned against rushing to interpret the latest failure as backsliding by North Korea, noting that major glitches happen even in the well-advanced U.S. rocket program. Of the other missiles that were launched, apparently none failed. But they were all known quantities. They were a mix of short-range Scud missiles and moderate-range Rodong missiles. "The others were not test flights," asserted John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, a Washington-based military think tank. He suggested the launches were intended to put Asian neighbours on notice. "There was something for everyone. Scuds for South Korea. And at least one Rodong for Japan," Pike said. Other scientists said that useful information could still have been obtained from the missile launches - even if they were not intended expressly as test flights.
Either way, the tests offered little new insight into North Korea's strength and intentions. They did generate widespread international alarm and propel the UN Security Council into an emergency session to consider a response.
Investigators from the Pentagon and other agencies pored over information on the launches gleaned from satellite and other surveillance.
White House spokesman Tony Snow held out the possibility of additional tests, particularly of short- and medium-range rockets. "There certainly is the potential there," he said. Anthony H Cordesman, an analyst with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies and a former Defense Department intelligence official, said one piece of useful intelligence the United States should be able to obtain is more detailed information on the structure and size of the multistage missile in the moments before it blew up.
Still, the data now available, including the apparently successful flights of the shorter-range missiles, suggest North Korea is primarily focusing on getting missiles that can attack targets anywhere it wants in Asia and not the US, with the possible exception of Guam, Cordesman concluded.
Why the Taepodong-2 failed was not yet clear. But US officials said North Korean engineers could learn from the failure. And they said the launches of the short-range Scud and the medium-range Rodong missiles show North Korea still has them, and knows how to use them.
Dan Goure of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank with ties to the Pentagon, said the failure of the first stage of the Taepodong-2 missile -- after working in 1998 -- could underscore that North Korea "hadn't done much with this missile in ten years."
"The possible bright spot is maybe they're really losing their edge. Of course, errors do happen. And it's not impossible that this was just a technical glitch, and they could put another one on the launch pad in a month, let's say," Goure said.
Defence Secretary Donald H Rumsfeld cited strong US alliances with Japan and South Korea as he criticized the medium-and short-range tests. "Furthermore, the Taepodong-2 is estimated to have the range that conceivably could reach the United States," he said at the Pentagon. "The fact that it failed is a fact, but it does not change the nature of the launch."
Charles Kartman, a retired diplomat who represented the US in talks with North Korea in the late 1990s, said the new tests follow years of no long-range and limited shorter-range missile testing by North Korea. "I speculate that they had a backlog of tests," he said.
Michael Green, an expert on Asia with the White House National Security Council in Bush's first term, suggested the tests were mostly an attempt by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to signal North Korea's muscle. But the long-range missile "turned out to be a lemon. This was a missile launch that failed - and a diplomatic move that failed," Green said.
Still, the fact that North Korea boasts of having nuclear bombs makes any missile test significant, even failed ones, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "What's disconcerting is that they continue to pursue an intercontinental ballistic missile program. What's reassuring - at least for now - is they do not appear to have that capability," Kimball said.