Yesterday’s launch of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng (or “Brilliant Star”) satellite by North Korea has generated tremendous international reaction, with most world powers issuing statements of concern or outright condemnation against an event which raises new questions about the isolationist state’s space and nuclear ambitions. Although North Korea has insisted that its efforts are peaceful and in line with the Outer Space Treaty, many governments remain convinced that this is merely a cover for the development of long-range, and possibly nuclear-tipped, intercontinental ballistic missiles.
South Korea—with whom the North has shared an uneasy peace since the end of hostilities in 1953—reacted to the launch with a vehement declaration that “repeated warnings and demands by the international community” had been ignored and that Kim Jong-un’s regime “should bear grave responsibility for the launch as the UN Security Council warned with its presidential statement in April.” The Council itself, which met yesterday, has announced that it will consider “an appropriate response” to the developing situation.
As reported in this recent AmericaSpace article, yesterday’s launch seems to represent the fourth attempt by North Korea to insert a satellite into orbit. According to its Academy of Sciences, the decision to develop such a program was taken in the 1980s and accelerated by South Korea’s successful launch of its Uribyol-1 satellite in 1992. Six years later, in August 1998, it was reported that a three-stage Paektusan rocket—derived from an intermediate-range ballistic missile and named in honour of the Korean Peninsula’s tallest mountain—flew from a launching ground in Musudan-ri, carrying Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1.
Neither the United States’ NORAD or Russia’s Strategic Missile Troops detected anything in orbit and the payload quickly plunged back to Earth. More recently, in April 2009, a newer rocket, the Unha-3, boosted Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 aloft, but met stiff opposition from the UN Security Council, since it breached the terms of Resolution 1718 which bans North Korea from testing ballistic missiles. Although it is generally accepted that the launch failed, North Korea continues to assert that Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 successfully entered orbit.
This year has been one of disappointment and possibly euphoria for Kim’s regime. On 13 April, Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3—reportedly a polar-orbiting Earth observation satellite—roared aloft from the 2.3-square-mile Sohae launch site on the Cholsan Peninsula of north-western North Korea. It broke up in flight and its remains fell into the Yellow Sea. The United States responded to this “provocative action” by suspending its 240,000-ton food aid package to the secretive communist nation. Then, only last week, North Korea reported by press release that its scientists had “analysed the mistakes that were made during the previous April launch and deepened the work of improving the reliability and precision of the satellite and carrier rocket.” At the same time, North Korea submitted details of the Unha-3’s intended flight path to international air and maritime authorities, indicating that it would follow a similar trajectory to that of the April launch.
Images of the Sohae site suggested that the rocket was fully assembled on its pad by the end of last week, although there was some confusion over claims that it was subsequently “removed” due to technical difficulties. This led to a decision to extend the previously published 10-22 December “window” by an additional week, to 29 December. Whatever the truth, the Unha-3 lifted off from Sohae, loaded with what North Korea has labelled “Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2,” at 9:49 am Korea Standard Time on Tuesday (7:49 pm EST on Monday evening), rising with what appeared from YouTube clips of its progress to be perfection and precision. “Rocket-cam” views revealed the hilly environs of the launch site. According to North Korea, the 200-pound satellite will be dedicated to estimating crop yields, collecting weather data and assessing the country’s natural resources.
It would appear from NORAD that the satellite successfully entered a Sun-synchronous orbit of approximately 363 x 310 miles, inclined 97.4 degrees to the equator and requiring about 95 minutes to complete a full circuit of Earth. Preliminary data indicated that the first stage of the Unha-3—equipped with four engines, powered by nitric acid and unsymmetrical dimythyl hydrazine—impacted the ocean, about 120 miles off the west coast of South Korea. Later in the ascent, the single-engine second stage impacted about 190 miles east of the Philippines. A “dog-leg” manoeuvre appears to have been performed to increase the inclination and thus attain Sun-synchronous orbit. Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 separated from the third stage of the Unha a little under ten minutes after launch. Reports over the last two days have indicated either that the satellite may be tumbling out of control or that it appears to be operating normally.
Not surprisingly, the official statement from Pyongyang offered little clarity and was laden with propaganda to glorify the late Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Il. “The successful launch of the satellite is a proud fruition of the Workers’ Party of Korea’s policy of attaching importance to the science and technology,” it read. “At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong-Il pervade the whole country, its scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il-Sung.” Kim Il-Sung was North Korea’s founder, whilst his son, Kim Jong-Il, died in December 2011 and was succeeded by his own son—the present “Supreme Leader”—Kim Jong-un.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s events, a spokesman for the United States’ National Security Council described the launch as illustrative of North Korea’s “pattern of irresponsible behaviour,” whilst the United Kingdom deplored the isolationist state’s decision to “prioritise this launch over improving the livelihood of its people.” Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry was left with “deep regret” and, closer to home, South Korea railed that the North “should bear grave responsibility for the launch as the UN Security Council warned with its presidential statement in April.” Other words of protest or concern have been expressed by Japan, Canada, India, and Bulgaria, with only Iran offering congratulation. Although China expressed its “regret” over the launch, its statement urged restraint on counter-measures and the most populous nation on Earth has a track record of blocking UN action against North Korea.
The coming days should offer more insight into a worrying development for the security of the region, particularly in terms of the relationship between North and South Korea, which remains on a heightened state of alert. Yet if Kim Jong-un’s year-old regime has launched a scientific satellite—or a satellite for any purpose—it must be borne in mind that this is a remarkable accomplishment. Although it has received much assistance from China and others, North Korea has become only tenth nation to build its own launch vehicle and deploy its own satellite into orbit. Only Russia (1957), the United States (1958), France (1965), Japan (February 1970), China (April 1970), the United Kingdom (1971), India (1980), Israel (1988), and Iran (2009) have previously achieved it.