South Korean Defense Ministry experts, analyzing debris of the rocket used by North Korea in its Dec. 12 launch and using other data, said their simulation of the Unha-3 rocket with the right amount of propellant showed it could carry 500 kilograms of warhead and travel more than 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles), a distance sufficient to strike the western United States, Yonhap News Agency reported.
The debris was collected from the sea after the Dec. 12 launch. The South Korean navy also retrieved a large cylindrical container believed to be the upper part of the first-stage rocket that also included a fuel tank and a combustion chamber, Yonhap said.
The South Korean Defense Ministry said Sunday expert analysis of the items showed the Communist country had indeed tested its inter-continental ballistic missile technology.
North Korea has claimed the rocket firing was to put a satellite in space and asserted its right to the use of space for peaceful purposes. Its action has been widely condemned as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting the country from any further nuclear or missile tests.
The ministry said the rocket and missile experts learned from the wreckage of the oxidizer container that it stored red fuming nitric acid, to fuel the rocket's first-stage propellant.
"Red fuming nitric acid was used in missiles developed by the Soviet Union," Yonhap quoted a team member as saying. "Because it used red fuming nitric acid as an oxidizer, which can be stored for a long time at normal temperature, the team concluded that [the rocket] was intended for testing [the North's] ICBM technology, rather than developing a space launch vehicle."
The North also has claimed its satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3, was functioning properly in orbit but Yonhap quoted Seoul officials that they believe the satellite is in unstable condition and that the North has lost contact with it.
The experts also said it was not immediately known whether the North has the critical rocket ability to make a re-entry to the Earth to hit a distant target.
CNN reported experts do not believe North Korea has a nuclear warhead small enough to be carried on the type rocket used in the recent test. However, they said it would allow the country to show off its technological prowess.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was quoted as expressing confidence to CNN that the U.S. military can guard against any North Korean missile launch.