Wednesday, April 17, 2013

North Korea's Rocket Program - Satellites or Missiles?

North Korea's December 2012 launching of its third Unha-3 rocket set the world on edge as the nation proved that it is capable of launching an advanced rocket and successfully inserting a satellite into orbit, a rather advanced project for a nation that suffers from chronic depravation.  While this created additional tension on the Korean Peninsula, is it possible that the DPRK really is just trying to join the ranks of nations around the world that have satellites in orbit?  A recent paper by Michael Elleman of the Arms Control Association examines the issue in some detail.

Let’s open by looking at a video of the successful launch of Unha-3 in December 2012:

Despite the announcing of the February 29th, 2012 deal in which North Korea would receive food aid in return for a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear testing and uranium enrichment, the DPRK declared that it would launch its first Unha-3 as part of its peaceful space program.  Pyongyang announced to the world its proposed launch dates and anticipated trajectory and even invited foreign observers to the Sohae launch facility on the west coast of North Korea.

Here is a screen capture showing the Sohae facility:

Here is a closeup of one of the two launch gantries (note the shadow cast by the gantry):

The first Unha-3 was launched on April 3, 2012 and failed after approximately 100 seconds of flight.  The debris field after the mid-flight failure suggested that the rocket failed during its first stage.

In November 2012, Pyongyang announced that it would again attempt to launch the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite into orbit using the Unha-3 rocket.  On December 12, the Uhna-3 was launched and actually successfully placed a satellite into a sun-synchronous orbit.  Unfortunately, the satellite failed to stabilize its orientation toward earth and did not transmit signals to terrestrial receiving stations.

As the DPRK has maintained all along, is it possible that Pyongyang is really attempting to gain a satellite foothold in space?  Let's take a quick look at how many operating satellites there currently are and who owns them.  Here is a chart showing the total number of satellites, who owns the largest number of them and their purpose:

In total, 50 nations (plus many who have partial ownership in international satellites) have satellites in orbit and South Korea, the DPRK's archenemy, has five in orbit including one owned by the Korean Agency for Defense Development which is listed as having a combined military/commercial purpose.  Even Iran's Research Organization for Science and Technology has a satellite in orbit.  Using this logic, it seems quite reasonable that North Korea would want to have its own piece of technology that the rest of the world has had for five decades.

Now, let's look at the evidence that may help explain whether North Korea's recent launches are related to missile development or satellite launches.  On the surface, both types of technologies look similar, however there are key differences as noted below:

1.) Trajectory:  Looking back at the DPRK's previous launches of their Taepo Dong-1, Unha-2 and April 2012's Uhna-3, it appears that all three had trajectories that are consistent with a satellite launch.  

2.) Re-entry Design:  Ballistic missile payloads must obviously survive re-entry into the earth's atmosphere, requiring specially designed materials capable of withstanding incredible levels of heat.  After all, if the payload cannot be successfully re-inserted into the atmosphere, it will never reach its intended target.

3.) Operational Requirements:  Space launches require many days and weeks of preparation prior to launching and, in general, launching takes place under ideal weather conditions.  It appears that the original launch date of the latest Unha-3 rocket in December 2012 was delayed by weather and pre-launch preparation took about 2 weeks.  In contrast, ballistic missiles must perform under even the most severe weather conditions under very short notice.

4.) Rocket Size: The Unha-3 is estimated to weight more than 90 tons.  This makes it far too large and far too cumbersome to be deployed on a mobile launch platform.  While the Unha-3 could be launched from a silo, the small size of the nation would make silos difficult to conceal and vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes by the United States and other nations.

While space launches can provide scientists with an opportunity to accumulate knowledge that is transferrable to the development of ballistic missiles, history from the experiences of both the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War suggest that space launch activities played a minor role in the development of long-range ballistic missiles.  

While the recent launches by North Korea have proven to be provocative, the link between the launches of the Unha-3 and the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile is tenuous at this point in time.  If anything, the April 2012 unveiling of a mock-up of a mobile, long-range missile could ultimately prove to be North Korea's entry point once it is fully developed.

Evidence that Kim Jong-un is in the final stages of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile program may be premature.  While his sabre-rattling should not be ignored, as the world found out after the fact, military intelligence isn't always accurate and despots don't always have a stash of weapons of mass destruction standing by.  Right, Colin Powell?

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