MANILA, Philippines – It was a dud – but a dud that was heard ’round the world.
North Korea’s failed launch of its Unha-3 rocket last Friday, April 13, in an attempt to place a scientific satellite into orbit, was the latest in a line of failures by the secretive Stalinist state.
The rocket exploded mid-air about one or two minutes after its launch Friday morning from the northwestern county of Tongchang-ri, splashing down in the Yellow Sea off South Korea, Seoul’s defense ministry said.
Pyongyang went on with the launch, despite global condemnation led by the United States and South Korea, seeing it as an attempt to test long-range missiles in breach of United Nations sanctions.
No one outside – maybe even inside – North Korea knows yet what happened during the launch, but some experts predict that the failure was mostly due to the rocket itself.
US and South Korean monitoring data said the first stage of the rocket fell into the Yellow Sea as planned, but the second and third stages failed, exploding at an altitude of 70.5 kilometers, with two pieces of the rocket continuing to ascend to 151.4 kilometers before the debris fell into the sea.
The blog All Things Nuclear, maintained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, summarized the following information, based on the numerous reports about the failure:
- The engines burned for less than 2 minutes prior to failure
- The rocket body broke into pieces, which then continued to travel for 6-7 minutes up to 120 kilometers high
- The splashdown zone was further east of the intended flight path, with the United States’ NORAD putting it 165 km southwest of Seoul
The blog said that initial information “strongly suggests that failure happened before the second stage ignited.”
“The breakup of the rocket may have been due to an explosion, either unintentional or due to a command from ground control if it determined that the rocket was malfunctioning or going off course,” the blog noted.
Other analysts share the same view.
“[It] seems it could have been a problem with the second stage separating and firing, Peter Crail of the Arms Control Association told Agence France-Presse.
“It was classic maximum dynamic pressure failure in which the vehicle is just shaken apart,” said Charles Vick of GlobalSecurity.org, speaking to PBS NewsHour on Friday.
The North, other analysts said, was likely to be chastened by the failure given its extensive publicity build-up.
“Obviously the rocket launch is pretty embarrassing for Kim Jung-Un and North Korea,” said Tate Nurkin, managing director at leading defence publication IHS Jane’s.
Kim Jong-Un, grandson of Kim Il-Sung, is working to bolster his authority after taking over power when his own father Kim Jong-Il died last December.
Given the advance publicity “it is hard to imagine a greater humiliation,” wrote North Korea expert Marcus Noland on the blog of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“Some of the scientists and engineers associated with the launch are likely facing death or the gulag as scapegoats for this embarrassment.”
The result suggests the regime’s effort is “a bit erratic” and that “they seem to have programmatic problems in terms of learning from their mistakes and successes and then building upon that,” Crail said.
The failed test indicates North Korea “has not yet overcome industrial processes such as quality control, reliability analysis, systems integration and technologies like propulsion and altitude control,” said Poornima Subramaniam, an analyst at the leading defense journal IHS Jane’s.
North Korea was a long way from entering the “league” of states with long-range missiles armed with atomic warheads, Kristensen said. “If North Korea is going to get some form of deliverable nuclear capability, it’s not going to happen right away.”
Failure not uncommon
Launch failures may be embarrassing, but they are not uncommon even for wealthy and technologically advanced nations.
Christian Lardier, space editor at France’s Air and Cosmos magazine, estimated there were an average 75 satellite launch attempts every year worldwide.
Each year there were four or five failures, he told Agence France-Presse in Pyongyang.
“Their overall design seems to make sense… but mundane sorts of things might get in the way, such as welding. Putting it all together can be hard,” said David Wright, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the New York Times.
It is also the first time Pyongyang admitted to failure – in its first two attempts, in 1998 and 2009, the country insisted their launches were successful, despite all signs pointing to failure.
“Differently from the past launches, the North will find it very difficult to insist the launch was a success as the rocket failed too soon after blastoff and its trajectory was fully exposed to the South and other countries,” Korea University political science professor Yoo Ho-Yeol told AFP.
Numerous analysts and experts are now predicting an underground nuclear test as a follow-up, presumably to save face, citing similar instances in 2006 and 2009.
Satellite imagery from the Punggye-ri site, one of the North’s nuclear test sites, showed tunneling and other preparations for what seems to be a nuclear test.
“[It is] a virtual certainty,” Marcus Noland of the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, told the Los Angeles Times.
With a successful long-range rocket launch seemingly eluding them, North Korea is reportedly developing another one, in a program separate from the one that conducted the Friday event.
An intelligence source told South Korean channel YTN that the North carried out 4 tests in developing an intercontinental missile at the Musudan-ri site, codenamed KN-08.
More tension in fragile region
The tests reportedly took place while the impoverished country negotiated with the US in freezing its nuclear and missile programs in exchange for food.
With the result of the failed launch, the US and its allies will have to worry less in the meantime about long-range missiles, as Friday’s incident showed North Korea is still far from developing such, the Times reported.
Some also say the launch possibly showed instability in the North Korean power structure, or a show of the new leader’s defiance of China.
Meanwhile, for North Korea, more sanctions could be on the horizon.
It started with the freezing of US food aid, and a US official said the international community can tighten prevailing or add more sanctions against them.
And if Pyongyang becomes aggressive against its co-occupant of the Korean peninsula as it tries to save face, Seoul could retaliate – leading to flare-ups in the already fragile region. – With reports from the Agence France-Presse