NoKor rocket: Should we be concerned?
MANILA, Philippines - North Korea is steadfast in launching a long-range rocket next week, creating further tensions in the Korean peninsula and pushing the region further in crisis.
Numerous countries and organizations, including the Philippines, have been opposing the launch, which they see as a pretext for a long-range missile test banned by the United Nations.
The country said stages of the rocket will land in open water hundreds of kilometers from any land mass, and that it will be for an observation satellite.
The question now is: should we be concerned about the launch?
Blast-off is scheduled to be between April 12 and 16 to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of founding leader Kim Il-Sung, the communist state's official news agency and state television said on Friday, March 16.
A Unha-3 rocket, which analysts and experts say is similar to the Taepodong-3 rocket, will launch a home-built polar-orbiting earth observation satellite known as Kwangmyongsong-3, a spokesman for the Korean Committee for Space Technology said in a statement.
No one outside North Korea actually knows the specifications and capabilities of the rocket, owing to the country's extreme secrecy.
The rocket will be launched southward from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, in the country's west coast. Evidence of preparations in its advanced stages have been seen in recently-taken satellite photos of the area.
In the line of fire
The Philippines, in particular, will be near the firing line, as the rocket debris is planned to splash down just east of Luzon, in the Philippine Sea.
In a letter to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Pyongyang said the rocket launch will take a southward trajectory, coming from Cholsan county in the North Pyongan province.
The letter, which was obtained by the website North Korea Tech (www.northkoreatech.org), stated 2 drop zones, one just off South Korea, while the other, much larger drop zone is located east of Luzon.
These drop zones indicate the possible areas where the debris from 2 stages of the rocket will fall, with Pyongyang hoping their "earth observation satellite" goes into orbit.
The launch will have a path going over the western part of the country, then over several South Korean islands, across the East China Sea, then over Japan's Miyako and IIshigaki islands, onwards to the Philippine Sea.
The threat of falling debris is the main concern of the Philippine government, since the second drop zone is just 180 kilometers off the country's main island.
The government is already preparing for the launch, with the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) identifying the second drop zone: a stretch of sea starting from 190 nautical miles northeast of Santa Ana in Cagayan, up to 140 nautical miles east of Polilio Island in Quezon.
The NDRRMC is already warning against aircraft and shipping movements around the drop zone.
In a press conference Tuesday, April 3, NDRRMC chief Benito Ramos said all kinds of sea transport should not venture into areas in and around the zone identified by Pyongyang.
Affected airways will also be closed by the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), and flights - particularly those coming from or going to Japan and South Korea - will be routed to take other paths.
The area will be declared a no-fly zone between 5 am to 1 pm from April 12 to 16.
Based on its projected path, it appears that the Philippines doesn't have to worry much - the rocket will clear a path mostly above international waters.
However, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), in a blog post, raised the possibility of the rocket straying away from its intended path.
How concerned should we be?
"The main question is what would happen if North Korea loses control of the rocket after launch," the UCS said.
The US-based nonprofit group said the rocket could have some security measures in place, such as remote engine shutdown or self-destruction mechanisms, in case it it strays.
UCS said that during the first segments of the launch, if the rocket veers off course, engines could be shut down, slowing it down and aborting the launch.
The main concern for the Philippines is after the second stage of the rocket burns out.
Even a few degrees of misalignment in its path could potential cause the stage to miss its intended splashdown zone by "a couple hundred kilometers to the side" and could hit land.
This stage is estimated to be roughly 1.5 metric tons, and could still break up or partially burn up upon re-entry into the atmosphere, the UCS said.
Another potential problem is if the 3rd stage of the rocket encounters problems early into its launch - the flight path takes it directly over parts of Bicol, Central Visayas, and Mindanao, before it moves on to Indonesia and Australia. Any potential malfunctions could make it fall back to Earth on any of these areas.
This is not the first time Pyongyang has launched a rocket or missile. Its most recent launch was back in April 5, 2009, when it launched a long-range rocket.
The rocket, which flew over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean, was also branded by the regime as an attempt to put a satellite into orbit, but the US, Japan, South Korea and the UN did not buy into it.
The independent think tank Council on Foreign Relations, based in Washington DC, said some of North Korea's missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads over great distances, potentially up to North America; next week's upcoming test, however, won't be carrying any nuclear warheads.
Despite this, the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute (PNRI) will be ready to activate the country's radiological emergency preparedness and response plan, in case a nuclear threat would eventually be present.
There is some comfort, however, if we are to look at North Korea's track record in launching missiles and rockets during the past decades.
In 2006, seven missiles test-fired by the North, including the long-range Taepodong 2, exploded just after 40 seconds. In 1998, an early attempt to launch a satellite flew over Japan during a test. The 2009 test was also seen as a failure.
North Korea has been working on its missile program since the 1970s, attempting to develop short- and long-range missiles.
At least two rockets, the Musudan and Taepodong 3 missiles, are estimated to reach targets between 4,000-6,000 kilometers from North Korea - this includes China, Russia, Alaska, and parts of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.
The country is also suspected of earning millions of dollars in the black-market trade for its products, particularly to countries such as Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Libya, and Yemen, the CFR said.
On full alert
North Korea's closest neighbors are all on heightened alert for possible risk from the launch.
Japan and South Korea, the countries closes to the so-called Hermit Kingdom, vowed to shoot down the rocket if it strays into their territory.
Japan, for its part, will deploy guided-missile destroyers and antiaircraft batteries, while South Korea, which is technically still at war with its northern neighbor, will deploy two destroyers armed with SM-2 ship-to-air missiles to the Yellow Sea to track the North's rocket and shoot it down if necessary.
Japan will also deploy additional defenses in Okinawa and Tokyo, and additional destroyers.
The Philippines admitted it doesn't have any capability to shoot the rocket if it strays its intended path. The country is seeking help from the United States to track the rocket down.
China, the North's traditional ally and largest trading partner, also expressed "serious concern" over the launch. Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama have recently agreed to "coordinate closely" in monitoring and responding to the situation.
The issue also dominated the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, where representatives from 53 nations attended to discuss nuclear disarmament, nuclear proliferation.
The United States, meanwhile, has suspended food aid to the country, one of the poorest in the world, which was part of a deal when Pyongyang suspended long-range missile tests and uranium enrichment in February.
Southeast Asian nations have also expressed "real concern" about the launch, supporting the Philippines' stance against Pyongyang's plan.
UN Resolution 1718, passed after the North's first nuclear test in October 2006, demands that it not conduct any further nuclear test or launch a ballistic missile. - With reports from the Agence France-Presse