December 4th, 2012
03:08 PM ET

What does North Korea's planned rocket launch mean?

By David Wright, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: David Wright is senior scientist and co-director on the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The views expressed are his own.

North Korea has announced that it will attempt another satellite launch in mid-December, only eight months after its failed effort last April. That rocket failed shortly after launch and dropped debris in the waters off South Korea’s west coast.

The Korean Central News Agency reported on December 1 that North Korea will launch its Unha-3 rocket during the period December 10 to 22, and that it will carry a second copy of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite shown to reporters in April. This announcement was not a surprise since experts monitoring the launch site using commercial satellite images have seen evidence of preparations for a launch over the past few weeks.

Press reports on December 3 said that North Korea is starting to assemble the launch vehicle, with the first stage now on the pad. In the past two attempts the rocket has been assembled on the pad about 10 days before the launch. Also on December 3, North Korea announced the splashdown zones where the rocket stages will fall into the ocean – a common practice that warns ships and aircraft to avoid those areas during the launch window. These show that the launch will be essentially a repeat of the April attempt: North Korea will launch from its Sohae facility on the west coast, and the rocket will fly south rather than east over Japan as several previous launches did. Launching south significantly constrains the launch direction and the trajectory will pass close to South Korea, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and several Japanese islands. This path is similar to that of South Korea’s launches.

While the purpose of this launch is to place a satellite in orbit, the rocket technology can also be used to develop a long-range ballistic missile. For that reason, following North Korea’s nuclear test in October 2006, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1718, which forbids North Korea from carrying out activities related to developing ballistic missile capability, including space launches.

More from CNN: North Korea's missile remarks

As happened last time, there are likely to be calls for the United States, Japan, or South Korea to shoot down the rocket if North Korea proceeds with the launch. But none of these countries have systems that can shoot down a missile when its engines are burning. Using Patriot PAC-3 or Aegis interceptors, they could attempt to intercept debris falling to earth, such as one of the empty stages, but these objects would likely be tumbling and would be very difficult to hit.

So why now? A key factor affecting the timing of the launch may be purely domestic: the announced launch window coincides with the one-year anniversary of the death of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il on December 17 and could be part of commemoration ceremonies. The KCNA announcement states the launch is being undertaken “true to the behests of leader Kim Jong Il.” North Korea attempted its first satellite launch in August 1998, at the time of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state, and last April’s launch coincided with the centennial of the birth of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung.

But there is considerable speculation about other factors that may influence the timing, with some suggesting that the launch is an effort to influence South Korea’s presidential election on December 19 or the Japanese general election on December 16. However, this seems unlikely – or at least not well thought out – since a launch is likely to work against Pyongyang’s interest in both cases by strengthening hardliners in these countries.

A more important motivation may be South Korea’s plans to join the small group of countries that can launch satellites. South Korea’s most recent launch attempt – its third after two failures – had been planned for November 29, but was postponed due to a technical glitch and now may not take place until spring.

In addition, in November, the United States finally agreed to allow South Korea to build ballistic missiles with ranges up to 800 kilometers, instead of the previous limit of 300 kilometers, which allows it to target all of North Korean territory. Range restrictions on South Korean ballistic missiles were first set in 1972 in return for the U.S. providing missile technology to the South. The original limit of 180 kilometers was extended to 300 kilometers in 2001 to match the limit of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Pyongyang may be reacting in part to both South Korean developments.

It is also possible that North Korea is using this as a negotiating ploy, hoping to get the United States to reengage. But evidence that rocket stages and fuel for the launcher have been delivered to the launch pad suggest otherwise.

Whatever the reason, a country whose launch schedule is driven by considerations other than the state of the technical systems is unlikely to have a successful satellite launch program. Rockets are highly complex systems, and South Korea’s launch failures and delays show that even programs that are not schedule-driven have trouble getting them to work properly. While KCNA reports that scientists have analyzed and fixed the problem that caused North Korea’s April launch to fail, the relatively short time since that launch calls that into question.

What will a successful launch mean?

A successful launch would help North Korea test rocket engines, guidance, and staging technology that could also be used in a ballistic missile. Because the upper stage of this launcher is designed to hold a lightweight satellite, it may not be able to carry a nuclear warhead, which would be some ten times heavier. If it could, a three-stage ballistic missile based on this technology could theoretically carry a one-ton warhead 10,000 kilometers to 11,000 kilometers. Such a range would allow it to reach the West Coast of the United States. A one-ton warhead launched on a missile consisting of the first two stages of this rocket might travel a distance of 8,000 kilometers, which could reach Alaska and Hawaii.

However, North Korea would have little or no confidence in such a missile, which would severely limit its military uses. Moreover, Pyongyang is not yet believed to have developed a nuclear warhead that could be carried by a missile, and has not demonstrated a heat shield for a long-range missile to protect a warhead during reentry.

The satellite is small and not very capable, but would give North Korean engineers practice at communicating with a satellite in orbit. From an economics and reliability standpoint, it would almost certainly make sense for North Korea to buy launch services from other countries rather than develop its own space launcher. The North’s insistence on developing its own booster rockets is one reason that observers tend to see Pyongyang’s space program as a cover for a ballistic missile program. But the same economic and reliability arguments apply as much to South Korea’s space program, so the argument is not so simple.

If the launch fails, it will be another setback for the program, but not a fatal one. Pyongyang is likely to keep trying as long as nothing changes domestically or internationally to convince it otherwise.

Post by:
Topics: Asia • North Korea • Nuclear

soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. Josh Skidmore

    I sometimes fear that the game Homefront might come true. In the beginning video of the story line it had north Korea nuking in space over the US. I just hope this is a failure.

    December 4, 2012 at 6:58 pm | Reply
    • BigDong Umwantsum

      You know the same thought crossed my mind. Korea launching an EMP nuke.
      Oh ya and that picture of Fareed turns my stomach.

      December 5, 2012 at 9:04 am | Reply
      • J.M. Osborne

        They do that, that would be a nuclear attack on the USA.

        Yeah, the US would be gravely hit, but we'd retain retaliatory capacity via our ballistic missile submarines. If there aren't multiple boomers off the NK coast now I'd be shocked.

        It would also invoke the North Atlantic Treaty, bring NATO into it. No amount of diplomatic flak from China would stop the annihilation of North Korea in response. It would be a Second Korean War, and if China got involved (which I consider highly unlikely), it would be World War III.

        December 6, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  2. green

    just nuke china and iran and north korea off the map. Enough troubles already.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:03 am | Reply
    • Bill

      You do realize that China has nuclear weapons too right?

      December 5, 2012 at 10:42 am | Reply
    • mike

      I agreed

      December 5, 2012 at 10:50 am | Reply
    • asdrel

      Sure, it doesn't matter if a few hundered million innocent civilians are incinerated as long as it saves us a few worries. (Note: Sarcasm flag raised)

      December 5, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Reply
    • matthew gibb

      Who would you get all of your cheap Wal-Mart crap from?Maybe they should gather all the hateful people like you together and start a sterilization program,so we don't have to endure your malevolent rhetoric.All the technology in the world to communicate and man still can seem to stop hatred and stupidity.

      December 12, 2012 at 5:49 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    North Korea announced plans to a launch the rocket despite concern expressed by its main ally, China.

    December 5, 2012 at 6:06 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      The launch prompted a meeting among ambassadors from China, the US, Russia and J apan with South Korean officials in Seoul last Monday to discuss the situation.

      December 5, 2012 at 6:08 am | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        North Korea's neighbours are on alert. Russian military would be ready to intercept the rocket if it deviated from its trajectory.

        December 5, 2012 at 6:08 am |
  4. Nino Trovato

    For North Korea, what goes up ALWAYS comes down... within a few seconds! That country is a punchline for the entire world!!!

    December 5, 2012 at 10:08 am | Reply
  5. BJJSchecter

    When N. Korea whips out the rockets, it's their way of seeing they ran out of food stamps and are looking for donations.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:35 am | Reply
  6. Bill

    N Korea will just keep trying because there is really no stopping them without a major war, and nobody wants that. Eventually, they may either get it right or run out of hard currency to keep it going.

    December 5, 2012 at 10:44 am | Reply
    • matthew gibb

      They certainly can't borrow from the most debt-ridden country on the planet.

      December 12, 2012 at 5:51 am | Reply
  7. Hahahahahahahaha

    The launch means nothing!!! It's were it crashes that concerns us!!!!! Hahahahahahahaha

    December 5, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply
  8. gmenfan54

    Another rocket launch from Wile E. Coyote and the Acme Rocket Co.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
  9. rjo3491

    What does North Korea's planned rocket launch mean? More comic relief for the rest of the planet.

    December 5, 2012 at 12:17 pm | Reply
  10. Total Infidel

    If North Korea did launch a rocket and explode and EMP nuke over the US that would be suitable grounds for one of our subs to take out KIm and his dung hole country once and for all. Even as dumb as Kim is, he realizes what the end game would result in.

    December 5, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
    • palintwit

      Yes, let's start another war. We aren't bankrupt enough already, we need to double down on it.

      December 5, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  11. Definition

    ..means they are going to use even more rubber-bands this time...

    December 5, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  12. Jeff

    Why are we defending South Korea? For 60 years we have spent billions every year supporting this failed state that cannot defend itself. We could have used that money to build a free college in every state that smart poor kids could use. What happens when North Korea realizes that asymmetrical warfare using terror tactics is way more economical than firing rockets? Do we then send personal bodyguards for every South Korean? Stop spending money we do not have supporting Korea. How many centuries do we carry this parasite state?

    December 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Reply
    • Some Random Guy

      South Korea actually carries it's own weight.. unlike our European allies.

      December 5, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
      • Jeff

        Then why has America had a standing Army in South Korea for the last 60 years? We just really like to impress the locals with our pretty uniforms? This travesty of a foreign policy that is leeching our budget each year must end. I'm glad you think s.Korea carries it's own weight. Time for America to stop doing it for them. Bring American troops home and spend American money on American defenses, American Schools, American infrastructure.and American jobs.

        December 5, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
    • Phazon

      I think Jeff is retarded.

      December 5, 2012 at 11:02 pm | Reply
      • Jeff

        I think Phazon is South Korean and does not want American's thinking about cutting off the river of milk and honey US taxpayers have been sending there for sixty years.

        December 6, 2012 at 12:29 am |
    • lithuanianshogun

      The US military isn't there just for South Korean security. They are there as a strategic detterence to global powers in the area (namely China and Russia), and can quickly react, in tandem with 7th fleet from Yokosuka to any situation that requires US military response. In short, the US wants/needs allies in the area, so it can project it's military power in the Asiatic region.

      December 6, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  13. Gus

    Because the US is an EMPIRE and that's how EMPIRES run their business. We don't GIVE anything to anybody. That's the cost of keeping control over the area.

    December 5, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  14. collin

    they ant going to do anything they are just the kid on the playground who was always thinking he was tough but was not

    December 5, 2012 at 5:17 pm | Reply
  15. cpc65

    The only thing worse than Made In China is Made In North Korea. The leading cause of injury in that nation will be hit by falling rocket debris.

    December 5, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
  16. Jeff

    This got me thinking a lot about America's involvement in Korea for the last 60 years. Does anyone know how many hundreds of Billions of American dollars we have poured into South Korea? Soon even the military imbeciles in North Korea will figure out that asymmetrical warfare and terrorism is much cheaper than rockets and nukes that can never be used. What will America do then, send a personal bodyguard for every South Korean? America should stop spending our tax money supporting a failed South Korean state that cannot protect itself and has been a parasite on the US economy for almost 100 years. ENOUGH. Write your Congressperson, your Senator, and your President. Invest in America.

    December 5, 2012 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • Thinking it through

      Korea isn't the only foreign nation America's been investing in that would probably fall under your definition of a "failed state". I must admit I don't know everything about government or economics but I feel like the suggestion of cutting all expenditures for "supporting a failed state that cannot protect itself" wouldn't actually solve anything in the long run.

      December 5, 2012 at 8:16 pm | Reply
      • Jeff

        We have been standing up US Troops and financing the heavy lifting on Korea's military for over 60 years. Exactly when is this not a 'failed experiment?' Or do you believe American taxpayers should foot the bill for everybody in the world who cannot hack it on their own?

        December 6, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • Nathan

      Go back to your trailer jeff... youre drunk. S. Korea is one of the biggest steel producers and technologically advanced countries in the world. Along with having one of the most highly educated populations in the world. Yeah... let a radical and unstable nation walk over it and reap the benefits of an educated population with a solid industrial backbone.

      December 6, 2012 at 7:09 am | Reply
  17. Jim

    It means:
    1) They want to keep their people in line by trying to demonstrate they're not a dirt poor backward nation (even though the people frequently starve)
    2) They want the international community to give them billions to not do stupid things for a few months (which has worked multiple times).

    December 5, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  18. peter kwon

    Partial activity of South Korea's Election Commission

    December 6, 2012 at 6:56 am | Reply
  19. Correcting an Error!

    of course we have technology that will shoot down a missile while its' engines are burning.
    That's a huge error in the article.
    so what else is wrong that I don't know about?

    December 6, 2012 at 10:49 am | Reply
  20. rightospeak

    North Korea was created by Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta to jusify huge military spendings. The Korean War was a waste of American and other countries lives,similar to VietNam where no victory was the objective-just to get the war profiteers richer. Afganistan seems to be a similar theme. In Korea, the case was very clear-MacArthur was fired by Truman for trying to suggest bombing Yalu river bridges where the Chinese were pouring in. the general stated that that is not how troops win wars. With end of Cold War and the fact of borrowing money from Communist China it makes little sense to even pump propaganda by Imperial Parrots.Unfortunately, investigative journalists have been silenced. It would be best for Korean people to be united and should have been done long ago and is inevitable. Writing articles about Korean unification would make a lot more sense.

    December 6, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Reply
  21. Clattus

    As much as China and Russia whine about the US in the middle-east we always have North Korea to criticize their own un-involved policies.

    December 6, 2012 at 9:32 pm | Reply
  22. dt


    December 7, 2012 at 1:58 am | Reply
  23. kim

    "It is also possible that North Korea is using this as a negotiating ploy, hoping to get the United States to reengage."
    This is absolutely not the case. Ever heard of the Juche philosophy?

    Im so tired of articles written about Korea by people who only get their information from the UN and the Council on Foreign Relations. And the flood of ignorant, intolerant, misinformed comments that flood in. This is all propaganda, the same as the propaganda used by the Kim regime in the North. Americans are becoming more and more brainwashed as they rely solely on "pop-edu-tainment" as their source of information. Just talk to a Korean person, see what they think. Let them read this article, they could use a good laugh.

    Just let the poor North Koreans, stuck in the Stalinist 60's, launch their dang satellite. Why is that such a threat? The only reason it is frowned upon is because of the semantic wording of an outdated UN resolution. The US oppresses the North more than any monomaniacal dictator ever could. Let them join the global environment and be understood on their own terms. They absolutely do not want a nuclear war, just like you.

    December 7, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  24. CharlieSeattle

    In a recent report from Newsmax, they claim that between October 1, 2010 thru September 30, 2011 that the U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security arrested 327,577 aliens illegally entering the U.S. JUST along the U.S. – Mexican border and another 6,552 illegals along U.S. coastlines.

    Of the illegals captured along the Mexican border, 46,997 were listed as ‘other than Mexican’. Among the ‘other than Mexican’ were people from countries listed as ‘special interest countries’ such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Somalia, Tunisia, Syria, Uzbekistan, Jordan and Indonesia. Looking at the countries of origin, I think it’s safe to assume that many of them were Muslim, making me wonder how many may have terrorist ties.

    Maybe the Muslim's just want to pick tomatoes? I don't think so.

    They are testing for soft spots to smuggle nukes across the Mexican border.

    ................Hm, but where to put them.

    How about in the bottom of Yellowstone lake atop the thin 3 mile thick porus cork over the super volcano.

    If that sucker blows, radioactive ash 10 to 3 foot thick all the way to the Ohio valley.

    All farmland, DEAD. Livestock, DEAD. Rivers, DEAD. Fish, DEAD. Transportation as we know it, DEAD. 200 million, DEAD and dying! 75% of the country DEAD in a month and it will continue to erupt for three months.

    This has a high probability precisely because Obama, Holder and Congress will not secure the Mexican border and enforce existing immigration laws.

    They LOVE illegals and weak national security!

    However take heart, MAYBE we can knock down a ICBM from North Korea with the new airborne laser if the launch is patterned like the staged marsh mellow tests to date.

    Lol, to funny!

    But the Pacific based Laser cannot target a beat up pickup truck crossing the Mexican border in the dead of night hauling a couple nukes to Yellowstone.

    December 8, 2012 at 11:03 am | Reply
    • matthew gibb

      Has anyone thought of where all our information is coming from?It is all shaped by media.The media wants you to tune in and then they can sell you with all of the ads they have to offer.The more sensational and grave the story the longer you tune in.Half the stuff you are spouting is of concern,but it isn't worthy of creating an additional burden on the already overburdened payer.Fear is an easy thing to see when you get everything from the media and accept it as gospel.

      December 12, 2012 at 6:08 am | Reply
  25. RLTJ's

    There is a hype and a scare to this. This is a technology race between the two sides of a divided Korea. They are decades behind western technology, actually.

    Technologies are also looked in for their military applications or use, or potentials. We live in a scared world. Everybody does that. Nothing new.

    December 8, 2012 at 6:57 pm | Reply
  26. RLTJ's

    They have nuke. They are trying to develop their rocketry technology. They are the facts. More than that is speculation.

    They are a scared people. And when people feel threatened and scared, the more they want to arm. Disarmament then becomes hard. You have to come in there and beat them up to do that.

    December 8, 2012 at 7:17 pm | Reply
  27. Typical Liberal

    IT means nothing. In fact we should give them a few of our nuked. All Hail Obama.

    December 9, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  28. RLTJ's

    Let's move toward a world that is free of hostility among neighbors. Yeah, why cant they do what everybody can do.

    They are not stupid enough to commit suicide.

    Divide and rule is sickening to a world that is coming to age. It has become boring to world watchers.

    December 9, 2012 at 8:50 pm | Reply
  29. Emerson Klaman

    India is the world's largest producer and consumer of milk, yet neither exports nor imports milk. New Zealand, the European Union's 27 member states, Australia, and the United States are the world's largest exporters of milk and milk products. China and Russia are the world's largest importers of milk and milk products.`."-

    Most up-to-date short article produced by our very own web portal <

    July 10, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Reply

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