On Friday 13th April 2012, North Korea went ahead with the launch of its Unha-3 rocket, ending in the same way of the previous two attempts, failing. The 30 metres Unha-3 rocket was fired from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province, Pongdong-ni (or Dongchong-ri or Tongch’ang-dong) West Coast at 07:39 local time (22:39 GMT Thursday). The rocket flown southward, to the west of the Korean peninsula, as scheduled, but failing after only 2 minutes. The North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) issued a statement confirming that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 Km west of Seoul, and the rest of the rocket exploded into at least 20 pieces falling into the sea.
Surprisingly, and for the first time, North Korea did not deny the failing and the state-run KCNA news agency announced: “The Earth observation satellite failed to enter its preset orbit. Scientists, technicians and experts are now looking into the cause of the failure”. State television carried a similar announcement.
The rocket believed to be an enhanced version of the Taep’o-dong -2 was carrying a working satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3, (Bright Shining Star) manufactured by North Korea with indigenous technology to mark the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim II Sung. The test flight, announced by North Korean authorities as a peaceful part of their ambitious space programme, has been widely condemned by the international community as a covert operation to test fire long-range ballistic missiles.
The failure of this launch is embarrassing for the regime and will lead to consequences internally and internationally, in a moment of great uncertainty after the death of Kim Jong-Il.
Taep’o-dong 2 (Unha-3): behind the ambitious plan
The Taep’o-dong is a North Korean-made three stage rocket evolved in different versions and tested and on three different occasions. Its evolution can be traced in 1987, when by order of Kim Jong-Il was commissioned a work to produce an effective weapon to counter threats or possible invasions. The original steps of the North Korean missile programme for a long-range rocket can be recalled to an evolution of the Egyptians scuds provided by the Soviets. North Korean engineers called this rocket Hwasong-5, and successive evolutions led to version 6 with a longer range and payload.
Increasing the capabilities of the Hwasong by 50%, technician were able to produce the Nodong Rocket, tested successfully on different occasions and produced in quantities to be considered a rocket in standard use by the army. The Taep’ o-dongs are the natural evolution of these first steps, although no one can be sure of the technical specifications and most of the time are based on assumptions from images or few details made available from different sources.
The first appearance of the Taep’ o-dong in its raw form was in February 1994 as two-stage rocket, with a range of 3,670-3,750 Km and payload of 700-1,000 Kg. The United States officially recognised the existence of this rocket, and of the North Korean programme, on a presentation made by the Vice-President of the Missile Defence Agency of the Pentagon, Army Brigadier-General Patrick O’Reilly at the George C. Marshall Institute.
It was unveiled the new Taep’ o-dong-2C/3, a two-stages rocket, with a potential range of 9,975.8 km, and a three-stage version with a potential range of 14,963.7 Km and a payload of 250 Kg. Was also observed that the new Nodong B could be able to fly 3,218-4,000 Km demonstrating a huge improvement in the capabilities of North Korean in evolving missile technology.
In February 1994, American sources identified North Korean testing for a new liquid engine, although was not clear if it was related to the Nodong A or the new Taep’ o-dong, whose first stage was speculated to be a variant of the Chinese CSS-2 or CSS-3, and the second stage a Nodong A. The latter has been most likely the start point in the evolution of the final steps for the taep’ o-dong in its final form, and had a first evolution as Iranian Shahab-3D/IRIS as a possible space carrier. The North Koreans were then able to unveil the Taep’ o-dong -1, a 25m rocket, 21t of weight and a possible payload of 1 t. The Taep’o-dong-1 was a two-stage rocket (the first a Nodong and the second a Hwasong-6) and tested on 31st August 1998 as space scarier. On that occasion, was introduced a third stage, likely a solid combustible able to carry a satellite in orbit. The first two stages operated successfully, but the third stage exploded. This failure led North Korean scientists to abandon this rocket and its subsequent evolution, the TD-2/A, considered inadequate to be successful as space carriers or potential LRICBM*.
Was the successful evolution of the Nodong B to permit North Korea in making a definitive improvement in missile technology and use it as a new base for further studying in the evolution of long-range rockets. The Taep’ o-dong 2C/3 was tested in 2006, in significant delay in respect to the original plans of 3-5 years elaborated by North Korean technicians, and carrying a new design based on the prototypes TD-2A and 2B. This was confirmed by the satellite images of the US Army, showing also works of improvement at the launch base in Musudan-ri with a new tower of 33 metres (against the 22m of the precedent) in 1999.
Between years 2001-02, North Korea conducted only ground tests on taepodong engines at least three or four times. Many of the delays can be attributed to the inadequacy of the launch station in Musudan-ri, not ready to host LRICBM rockets and with few infrastructure of support: few roads, mostly not paved, absence of support site for stocking material and no staff structure support. Musudan–ri hosted only three test flight for rockets, although on ground, between 1999 and 2001, but with the possibility of further subterranean tests.
South Korean sources reported on 21st April 2003 that a huge explosion occurred in November 2002, destroying partially the launch pad, and confirmed by American spy satellites. This incident led to the delay that will see the TD-2 tested only in 2006.
In 2006, American intelligence gathered enough data to confirm that North Korea was on the road to test a long-range missile in violation of the moratorium under the Declaration Japan- North Korea between Kim Jong-Il and Junichiro Koizumi. The Taepodong-2 was launched on 05th July 2006 form Musidan-ri base, but failed after only 35 seconds.
North Korean technicians still believed that this was the correct path to follow and making further changes and restyling they were able to announce a new test in 2009. The Taep’odong-2 or Unha-2 was launched on 05th April 2009, officially to carry a communication satellite the Kwangmyongsong-2 o Unha-2 into orbit. Although the test failed to send into orbit a satellite, discordant judgement were given. Pyongyang announced that the missile launch was successful and the satellite was in orbit transmitting revolutionary chants, whilst American intelligence announced its failure as the rocket fell into the Pacific Ocean. Subsequent data, shown that the missile was able to fly for several miles, further than previously believed and used advanced navigation systems, if compared to the precedent test. Data confirmed that the rocket flew 2,390 miles against 1,900 previously announced by American military sources, and that was able to enter orbit before falling back into the atmosphere. The sources confirmed that the third stage failed in separating, whilst the second stage operated successfully. First accounts reported the second stage failing. Sources from the US Air Force Defence Support Programme (DSP), shown that the rocket carried advanced navigation systems and other technological advancements, suggesting that the North Korean were testing an ICBM rather than a space carrier.
The rocket tested in 2009 was believed to be a new version of precedent taep’o-dongs, with a first stage using a liquid propeller (Tm-185 and oxidizer Ak-271) rocket known as Musudan-1 ( MRBM derived from Soviet R-27 Zyb). The second stage was controversial, and many think was an evolution of the soviet scud based on SS-N-6 technology, like a Rodong-1, a Hwasong-6 or a Nodong. The third stage was likely a Chinese-made solid combustible and might be identical to the Iranian Safir’s second stage.
The Unha-3, rocket tested in 2012, is believed to be a further evolution of the Unha-2/Taep’o-dong tested in 2009, although, as usual, technical specification will be hard to be assessed due to the secrecy of the North Korean authorities. The rocket was 30-meter long, 2.5m diameter and 120 tonnes, but what captured the attention of space engineers in the world was a new third stage. This is believed to be a highly refined design of a liquid storable propellant based on a second stage, and separate engine pump system, utilized in a similar design that Iran has tested successfully on its Safir-II space boosters.
The Unha-3 failed to reach orbit, bringing a new failure in North Korean ambition to develop a space capability and maybe a LRICBM. However, the consequences of this failure are not limited to a technical sphere and may involve both internal and external aspects.
*SRBM: Short Range Ballistic Missile <1000 Km
MRBM: Medium Range Ballistic Missile 1000-2500 Km
IRBM: Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile 2500-3500 Km
LRICBM: Limited Range Intercontinental Ballistic Missile 3500-8000 Km
FRICBM: Full Range Intercontinental Ballistic Missile 8000-12000 Km
North Korea perspective:
The failure of the Unha-3 launch is embarrassing for the North Korean regime, that is the bottom line. Never in the history of the North Korean missile programme, a failure had an impact such this and the reasons are various.
North Korea propaganda worked hard, more than usual, in trying to persuade not only its people but also the world that the most isolated country was able finally to achieve the mastery of space technology. The brainwashing messages to North Koreans have been sided by the unexpected and unprecedent overture of the regime to foreign journalists, invited to the space station in Sonhae. The move, that the regime included in the celebration for the centenary its great leader Kim Il Sung, was also aimed at reassure international community that this test was not for military purposes.
What made Pyongyang take this path? As we know North Korea is still in the difficult and uncertain process of power transfer from Kim Jong-Il to his young son Kim Jong-un, and the test in reality may have different interpretations than technological ones. The main concern for the young Kim is to consolidate and stabilize his power, keep control of the state, continue in the military first policy of his father aiming at the essential support of the army, maintaining a grip on the people, and adopt a strong stance towards western and neighbouring powers. After the obvious announcements in Kim Jong-un as head and chief of different key state and army positions, followed an unexpected overture in February 2012 when Pyongyang agreed to a partial freeze in nuclear activities and a missile test moratorium in return for US food aid. The move was seen as an important change in the new leadership and led many observers to believe that a new six nation talks could be reinstated. We could not be more wrong. After not even a month, North Korea announced its plan for a new rocket test, although for peaceful means, but led instantly to international condemnation, with US freezing its aid and threats of different kind. In reality, looking at the North Korean diplomatic history, as well recent events, nothing has really changed: Pyongyang love to open and close the door at the same time, be unpredictable, a mystery, and an unknown threat.
The invitation of foreign journalists, sharing the event with the world, was not only propaganda, but also a plan with the below objectives:
-Demonstrate a new course in the leadership
-Confirm the intention in pursuing a space programme
-If successful, achieve glory and obviously able to develop a strong military deterrent.
The failure could undermine all the above points and led to unclear consequences for the regime. The propaganda, could have a disastrous effect internally to a nation generally used to receive lies and unbelievable accounts of achievement by the “dear leaders”. This time, state TV announced the failure in a broadcast. This admission could lead the leaders in the party and the army to believe that a dangerous message could reach the masses, lifting that sort of infallibility that surrounded the Kim dynasty for decades. The consequences could lead to an even harder grip on people as well a possible internal struggle for power control and legitimacy.
Never in the past, although failing tests were happening, was a public admission permitted, making in fact Kim Jong-un the first known leader to have failed in something at the eye of his fellow citizens.
If the timid overture was a test for a new course, this can be said is now gone, as the hard liners in the party but especially in the army will push for a return to the muscular and strong stance against “enemies” inside and outside the country. This could lead to military moves, such the Cheonan incident, or a new nuclear test. The latter has been speculated and could bring stability in the regime, scare the world again and steer back the new leader toward the path of his father.
North Korean authorities have been pursuing ballistic technology for decades and, if on the medium range they have achieved results able to guarantee defence against neighbouring countries, they know that only a powerful weapon such an ICBM could provide the deterrent to block any US attempt for a regime change. The only certain point is that North Korea will not renounce to achieve ICBM technology and a temporary threat will be found to keep at large the reinvigorated international community. The uncertain aspect is how this failure will affect Kim Jong-un leadership and his ability to have a real autonomy and effective control over the army, the very and only key holders to the secrets of this last bastion of the cold war.
International reactions and consequences
International response from this test has been as usual very strong in terms of condemnation, but this time the nature of the test and its aftermath could lead to different positions.
All the major players in the North Korean missile legacy have publicly criticised the regime for the following reasons:
-A step back to the old days after the overture in February
-A violation of the moratorium in ballistic missile tests
-A threat to regional and world security
US, Japan, and South Korea have always maintained that North Korea test for a satellite was in reality a long-range rocket test in disguise, and how we could blame them seen the past? China and Russia reacted nervously to this new announcement by Pyongyang but maintained their usual reserves.
The first reactions were in line with past declarations and similar events, although what followed will probably create different positions.
The unexpected invitation to foreign journalists by North Korean authorities, the decision to review the fly path of the rocket, after Japan threatened to shoot it down if fired above its airspace, and the clear sign that this time was a satellite test, created more questions than answers. Obviously, would have this test been successful many, especially the US, will be worried about North Korean capabilities and possibility to develop an LRICBM able to carry nuclear warheads. Its failure left the international community with the following feelings:
-North Korea is far from master space technology and LRICBM.
-At present there is no danger for US territory
-The unexpected overture to foreign journalists would suggest a timid softer approach by current leadership or prelude an internal struggle
-North Korea is less dangerous or capable then previously thought.
Based on the above assumptions, western powers and regional countries are now evaluating their positions and response. The UN has already condemned the launch but what next?
North Korea is clearly, at present, not able to develop long-range ballistic missiles technology or space boosters, relieving the anxiety especially of the US, but nothing really changed for Japan and South Korea that area still target of medium range missiles. The wrong assumption that North Korea is weak, or less frightening, could lead to disastrous consequences. Engaging the regime in Pyongyang too hard could lead them to military skirmishes as seen in the past, as well carrying new MRBM or nuclear tests. Condemning and isolating North Korea in the same way as in the past has not changed their way, or their desire to build a deterrent to US hegemony. The effect could be paradoxically the contrary, reinforce their sense of isolation, give the army and the hardliners a reason more to legitimise their missile programme and a crackdown on internal policy.
Even the timid signs of dialogue from the new leader could be washed away by a strong and belligerent stance by the US and South Korea: Kim Jong-un, clearly now at the eye of the turmoil, could be weakened even more in front of the powerful People Army and be relegated to a sort of puppet, and in the worst of the hypothesis open a power struggle with unthinkable consequences for the peninsula.
The US, that have been the major key player in this last 10 years of legacy, now can be still sure that their territory is free from attacks, but they also know that North Korea will not renounce to pursue that technology. Unlike Bush administration, Obama entourage did not use the hard line policy or the black list post 9/11, preferring instead a containment policy. This seems to have given some results in softening the North Korean approach, but a more radical stance by the US could give the regime the pretext for a return to a confrontational policy. A natural question will now arise as to why North Korea is pursuing this old fashion policy with the US, contradicting the initial steps. The US are at the moment in a point of passage, but two are the possible reasons for North Korea perceptions: the reshuffle of troops and strategy to the Pacific and November presidential elections. North Korea, as China, did not welcome the announcement by president Obama of a new strategy by US military forces prioritising the Asia/Pacific area. Even though this policy is clearly aimed at the Chinese, North Korea know that is in the range of US desire for a different geopolitical system. The possible change at the presidency of the US, with a return of the Republican Party, and therefore a major opposition and a more aggressive foreign policy, could then explain North Korea attempt to frighten and remind the US that there is no space for negotiations.
Japan and South Korea are obviously, as usual and rightly, the more concerned by the latest developments. Nothing has really changed in their position and North Korea is as dangerous today as it was yesterday. North Korea have a huge stockpile of short and medium range ballistic missiles, as well chemical and bacteriological weapons, without counting a powerful and full-armed army. The death of Kim Jong-Il has created more concerns than happiness in these two countries and the recent developments suggest that Kim Jong-un is far from be really in command and unopposed by internal rivalries. Especially South Korea now fears that the North, in search of revenge for this embarrassment and because of the army strengthening, could look for small military engagements or pursue new nuclear tests.
China, a long-term ally of Pyongyang is also at a crossroad: appease the regime or be against? China has seemed uncomfortable with North Korea in the recent years due to the major interest of the Chinese in presenting the country as a trusted economic partner as well a solid market. The Chinese called for restraint and paved the way to stop furnishing technology to North Korea. This could now change for two reasons: US policy and internal factors. The US strategy in the Pacific, has angered the Chinese authority, as they are trying to build a powerful navy and consolidate their military strength. Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, fear of a strong Chinese military presence have found ears in Washington, now concerned by the rapid development of the Chinese air force, as well the navy. China could therefore see North Korea as a valuable card to play to keep these rivals at large: make sure the Pyongyang regime does not collapse but not strengthening it enough, as they are known to be like a dangerous dog without a leash.
The other reason for concerns in China is related to the recent internal struggle in the Communist Party and rumours of discontent in the powerful People Liberation Army. China is struggling to keep together the capitalist facade with the preservation of the communist interiors, and cracks are appearing in the monolithic PCC, as well unrest in the countryside where paradoxically the insurgence could arrive from nostalgic Maoists rather than from a liberal side.
Russia, the last of the six parties at talks, does not see North Korea as a priority affair, not its sphere of influence. However, Russia includes North Korea in a wide geopolitical system aimed at contain the neo-imperialist stance of NATO and US hegemonic desire shown by the regime change policy. Russians will back the Chinese in calling for restraint in Pyongyang but preventing any real possibility of further military engagement. Russia position in strengthening its US containment policy, is having a boost especially after the recent election of Putin at the presidency, and the signal of a hard line towards NATO has been demonstrated in the current Syrian crisis.
North Korea remains therefore a threat to regional and global security, both for as possible military confrontation or by collapsing. Unfortunately for us their next moves are as usual surrounded by unpredictability as the regime itself, still able to waste millions of dollars in pursuing a space/missile programme, whilst unveiling gold statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim to an hungry and lobotomised population.