Two issues arise in the wake of North Korea’s apparently and surprisingly successful test launch of a three-stage Kwangmyongsong-3 atop an Unha-3 at 9:49 am (KST). Firstly, how did North Korea improve so rapidly after its failed launch on April 13?
It’s impossible to know exactly what caused that previous rocket to fail, but one running theory has it being a problem with either the guidance system or first-stage engine. Earlier this month, Japanese news agency Kyodo News (alas, behind a paywall) reported that U.S. and Japanese officials had completed analyzing telemetry data from the April launch, which indicated one of those two culprits, or even a structural failure.
“The Kyodo report is interesting in part because if U.S. and Japanese experts were poring over the data until October or November to understand the failure, it calls into question whether North Korean engineers could have identified and remedied the problems in time for a December launch,” wrote David Wright, a missile expert with the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
That also tracked with what Victoria Samson, a rocket expert with the Secure World Foundation, told Danger Room last week: The time frame between launches may just be too short for North Korea to have made significant upgrades. But Adm. Samuel Locklear, the U.S. Pacific Command chief, sounded a little freaked out over the possibility that North Korea has “progressively gained better technology over time.”
Still, rocketry is an extraordinarily difficult engineering task. It’s not uncommon for developed countries with advanced rocket programs to fail at it. Fixing one problem could create unintended faults to pop up elsewhere. Worse, North Korea uses old Soviet rocket parts and cobbles them together, and lacks the technical expertise and manufacturing processes needed for rockets to work well. Even if a rocket successfully launches a satellite it into space, it doesn’t mean it can hit the United States, or carry much of a payload — let alone a nuclear one.
A minor note here: I’m concerned about proliferation and, if Seoul can meet Pyongyang’s challenge and launch its Naro rocket now, and regional responses.
The South Korean military detected the rocket as soon as it was airborne, according to the South’s Yonhap news agency. “Shortly after liftoff an Aegis radar system in the Yellow Sea detected the move,” a military official was quoted as saying.
The US, Japan and South Korea had applied pressure on the North Korean regime to abandon the launch, saying it violated UN security council resolutions banning it from using ballistic missile technology and would invite further sanctions. The UN security council imposed tough sanctions after the North conducted nuclear weapons tests in 2006 and 2009.
China, the regime’s only major diplomatic ally and chief benefactor, voiced “deep concern” but is expected to oppose further sanctions. Japan on Wednesday requested an emergency meeting of the UN body to discuss its response.
Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “I strongly condemn the satellite launch today.” The UK government would summon the North Korean ambassador in London, he said. “This provocative act will increase tensions in the region. I deplore the fact that [North Korea] has chosen to prioritise this launch over improving the livelihoods of its people.
“It is essential that [North Korea] refrain from further provocative action and take constructive steps towards denuclearisation and lasting peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”
The anticipated launch had raised anxiety levels in the region, days before both Japan and South Korea elect new leaders and weeks after China completed its once-in-a-decade leadership change.
Japan had positioned missile defence systems on the southern island of Okinawa but reported that no debris had fallen on to its territory.
South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak, convened an emergency security meeting. The country had positioned three Aegis warships equipped with SPY-1 radar off its western and southern coasts to track the rocket’s path.
Ban Ki-moon deplored the launch, said the office of the UN secretary general.
And, secondly, just a quick glance at the flight path of the rocket confirmed by debris is disconcerting. Not only did the rocket slide past South Korea’s western coast, but it also flew over Okinawa, a stage finally landing near The Philippines. Although NORAD was quick to assure Americans, that the United States mainland is safe, the rocket threatens one of the world’s most important sea lanes and the American navy that patrols it.
Aside from the technical issues raised by the new reality, that North Korea is the world’s tenth space-faring state, there are strategic issues involving how the United States should integrate the North Korea fait accompli into its military doctrine.