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.

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Topics: Asia • North Korea • Nuclear

soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. Emerson Klaman

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    July 10, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Reply
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