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North Korea's Revised Rocket Launch Plan Hints at Greater Professionalization, Expert Says

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at left, joins military personnel in applause during a January visit to a tank division. Pyongyang’s announcement on Monday of a longer rocket launch window could mean the country’s missile program is becoming more professionalized, one U.S. expert said (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency).
 North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at left, joins military personnel in applause during a January visit to a tank division. Pyongyang’s announcement on Monday of a longer rocket launch window could mean the country’s missile program is becoming more professionalized, one U.S. expert said (AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency).

WASHINGTON -- North Korea’s announcement Monday of a longer window for sending a long-range rocket into space due to technology difficulties could mean that Pyongyang has moved to professionalize its missile and space development program, a ballistic missile expert told Global Security Newswire.

After reportedly placing all three Unha 3 rocket stages on the launch platform at the Dongchang-ri complex, North Korea was expected to begin injecting fuel into the rocket. It appeared on track to make the start of its earlier publicized launch window of Dec. 10 through Dec. 22. So the announcement by state media that a “technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module” had led officials to lengthen the launch window to Dec. 29 was somewhat surprising.

North Korea has had zero successes in four attempts to send a rocket into space, including the highly embarrassing April breakup of another Unha 3 rocket. The latest revelation of malfunctioning technology would appear to fit with the popular understanding of a mismanaged and inept rocket program.

Somewhat counterintuitively, missile expert David Wright said the North’s decision to allow itself more time to carry out the launch -- even if it means missing the chance to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Dec. 17, 2011 death of longtime ruler Kim Jong Il -- suggests a “new frame of mind” in the management of its highly prized rocket and missile program.

“We often try to read the tea leaves and often misread the signals that they are sending,” said Wright, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Rather than signaling further incompetence, delaying the launch could mean  the people overseeing the program are being more prudent and working systematically to correct the problem, according to Wright. “We haven’t had indications before, at least public indications, that North Korea has delayed launches in this way. ... That seems like a new way of doing things.”

Rocket programs in advanced countries such as the United States and South Korea also experience technical difficulties and schedule setbacks, Wright pointed out.

“The North Koreans may be learning from this,” he said, adding that such progress would be signaled by “a change in leadership at the top that recognizes if you really want a successful program, then you really have to turn this over to the engineers” and away from politically-forced launch schedules.

Joel Wit, editor of the 38 North website that monitors North Korean missile and nuclear efforts, said he believes too little is known about the buildup to Pyongyang’s past launches, including how much influence technical specialists had, to draw conclusions about whether the program is becoming more professional.  

“The only way you really know what is going on is through satellite photos” and the coverage from that is not continuous, said Wit, a former U.S. State Department official.

Though Pyongyang claims its latest space launch is intended to place a satellite into orbit, the United States and allied nations have condemned the project as a violation of U.N. Security Council rules that ban the aspiring nuclear power from using ballistic missile technology. Japan has deployed missile defense systems for a possible intercept should it appear the rocket endangers the island state’s territory and the U.S. Navy has positioned its warships in the Asia-Pacific to monitor the rocket if it is launched.

North Korea's declared flight path would have the rocket fly over the Yellow Sea, dropping its first stage in the ocean about 87 miles west of South Korea and then losing its second stage approximately 85 miles east of the Philippines.

Wright calculated the likely trajectory of the rocket should it successfully complete the staging process in a Friday blog post for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

He concluded an actual ICBM “would reach a much higher altitude” than the plotted path of the Unha 3 rocket. “It’s not that they are going to have a sneak attack on Hawaii under the guise of a satellite launch,” Wright told GSN

While not a direct ICBM test, a successful rocket launch could allow the international community to draw some conclusions about the status of North Korea’s strategic ballistic missile development. 

“There are various things that you need to be able to demonstrate” for a space rocket launch to prove an extended-distance ballistic missile capability, according to Wright. “Control of the missile, staging … if you can show that then that technology clearly can be used for a long-range missile.” 

In the North’s three most recent launch attempts using three-stage rockets, it has only once successfully achieved separation of rocket stages out of a possible six stage disconnects, Wright noted.

“The technology of how you do the staging is clearly something that North Korea knows. The trick is getting it to work properly and to work reliably. Even if this launch works perfectly … it doesn’t tell you much especially if you’re trying to have something to rely on for military use."

North Korea would have to carry out multiple successful space rocket launches in order to prove a reliable strategic missile capability, he said.

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