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World

North Korea Launches Rocket Believed To Be Long-Range Missile Test

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It is never easy to figure out what North Korea is up to. Yesterday, it launched a satellite into orbit, which North Korea billed as an Earth-observation satellite but much of the world condemned as a weapons test. For more, we turn to MIT professor Ted Postol, who follows missile and nuclear weapons programs. He's long argued that Western governments overstate the North Korean threat.

TED POSTOL: I think the technology that they're utilizing in this rocket could be used in a different rocket to build a rocket that is capable of actually carrying what is sometimes referred to as a first-generation nuclear weapon to the mainland of the United States. But the rocket you would have to build would have to be about 50 percent larger and heavier than the rocket they're currently using. Now, can they build it? Yes. But that would be a gigantic project, and it will almost certainly be highly visible for a full 10-year period or more while they're trying to build this rocket. So there's going to be no surprise here.

MONTAGNE: OK, so no surprise in your opinion, but it has revived talk of the threat that North Korea presents both to the U.S. mainland and then obviously to its near neighbors, Japan and South Korea. How much does this make a difference in that?

POSTOL: It makes no difference in that. There is a threat to South Korea, Japan, potentially Taiwan and perhaps even Guam if they modify a missile for shooting that far. But the threat only exists if they have a nuclear warhead that is light enough and compact enough to actually be mounted on these missiles. And the test record from the nuclear tests strongly suggests that they're having some kind of difficulty with their nuclear weapon development program.

MONTAGNE: What then do you think the West's response to North Korea's - this launch and North Korea's missile and nuclear weapons research generally should be?

POSTOL: Well, I think the U.N. voting to sanction North Korea is a reasonable approach. I mean, we don't want countries, you know, rattling their sabers the way things have been going on here. But I do think the hysterical response that we're seeing is totally inappropriate. This is just another freak show or circus that is being created by this hermit state in order to try to get attention. And the more we overreact, the more we play into their hands.

MONTAGNE: Dr. Ted Postol follows North Korea closely as an expert in nuclear weapons and missile defense at MIT. Thank you for joining us.

POSTOL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.