North Korea’s Unha-3 Test: Scientific Achievement or Building a Deterrent?

After four attempts, North Korea successfully test fired a space booster and put into orbit its first satellite. The move, which sparked wide condemnation as a masked long range ballistic missile test, also shocked for the rapidity with which the poor country recovered from the failure in April 2012.

On 12 December 2012, North Korea launched successfully the Unha-3 rocket, a Taepo-dong-2B (mod-4) space booster launch vehicle. The rocket was launched from the Sohae Satellite Launching Ground at 00:49:46 UTC (09:49 KST) and put into orbit a space satellite, Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3.Unha-3 Launch, Reuters

The three stages rocket separated successfully with the first stage impacted the ocean 200 kilometres  off the South Korean west coast at 00:58; at 01:01, the rocket flew over Okinawa (Japan), with the second stage impacting 300 kilometres east of the Philippines four minutes later. The spacecraft separated from the rocket’s third stage at 00:59:13 or nine minutes and 27 seconds after lift-off.

The U.S. Space Command tracked the rocket and its separations from the launch, giving Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 the Satellite Catalog Number 39026 and the international designator 2012-072A.

The test was hailed as a success from North Korean scientists and authorities, and for the first time their claims were backed by US and NORAD with the following note:

‘PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – North American Aerospace Defense Command officials acknowledged today that U.S. missile warning systems detected and tracked the launch of a North Korean missile at 7:49 p.m. EST. The missile was tracked on a southerly azimuth. Initial indications are that the first stage fell into the Yellow Sea. The second stage was assessed to fall into the Philippine Sea. Initial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit. At no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America’.

KCNA, North Korean News Agency,  previously gave the following statement:

‘Scientists and technicians of the DPRK successfully launched the second version of satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 into its orbit by carrier rocket Unha-3, true to the last instructions of leader Kim Jong Il. Carrier rocket Unha-3 with the second version of satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 atop blasted off from the Sohae Space Center in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province at 09:49:46 on December 12, Juche 101(2012). The satellite entered its preset orbit at 09:59:13, 9 minutes and 27 seconds after the lift-off. The satellite is going round the polar orbit at 499.7 km perigee altitude and 584.18 km apogee altitude at the angle of inclination of 97.4 degrees. Its cycle is 95 minutes and 29 seconds. The scientific and technological satellite is fitted with survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth. 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 is also an event of great turn in developing the country’s science, technology and economy by fully exercising the independent right to use space for peaceful purposes. 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’.Celebrations in Pyongyang

The DPRK, that hailed the test as “their sovereign legitimate right to have an indigenous satellite launching as a part of their peaceful space program to demonstrate its economic, & technological power”, is contrasted by the usual accusation that this masks a test for a long range missile capable to carry nuclear war heads and put into range US west coast and Asia.

The UNSC condemned the launch in violations of the resolutions numbers 1718 & 1874 against such activities, although once again the reaction from the main powers has not been homogeneous, highlighting issues to come.


The last chapter in the Taep’o-dong saga? 

The Unha-3 rocket tested in April 2012 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 thought to be 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 new and 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 rocket launched in December is believed to be a further evolution of the Unha-3/Taep’o-dong tested in April 2012, although, as usual, technical specification will be hard to be assessed due to the secrecy of the North Korean authorities.

The satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 (Chosŏn’gŭl: 《광명성―3》호 2호기; Bright Star-3 Unit 2 or Lode Star-3 Unit 2), is an Earth observation spacecraft that replaced the original Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, destroyed in the failed test on 13 April 2012. The launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 was the fourth North Korean attempt to put into orbit a satellite; in the first failed two attempts, 1998 and 2009, North Korea still claimed success  (Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2), whilst in the third in April 2012 admitted the failure after an unprecedented exposure and overture to foreign journalists.

North Korea said the satellite would estimate crop yields and collect weather data as well as assess the country’s forest coverage and natural resources. It also said the satellite weighed about 100 kilograms (200 lb) and that its planned lifetime will be about two years. However, there are reports that the satellite is tumbling and could be dead, while North Korea claims is still functioning.


In the latest test, there are some elements of continuity as well as new trends if compared to North Korean previous patterns. The discontinuity is marked by the rapidity with which North Korea not only conducted the test but also made it successful. In the past each test was carried out on longer terms: 1998, 2009, 2012.  This time only eight months passed since the last one. This new timescale is surprising especially taking into account that in April they seemed yet so far to master space launching. An element of continuity is the return of a more enigmatic, discording and vague approach towards outside world. Although they revealed rocket’s trajectory and plans even two days before they announced an extended window to 29 Dec for the launch. This signs a clear abandon of the extreme and unprecedented overture of April 2012 when the whole world was invited to assist at the failure, creating embarrassment in Pyongyang.

North Korean perspective

The reasons behind the launch are reaching far from the simple scientific achievement and could be divided into two categories: internal and external.

Kim leadership still unclear

The launch came after a turbulent start of leadership for Kim Jong-un. Nearly a year after his access to power, Kim Jong-un is still trying to shape the country and consolidate his power. Especially after the April failure his leadership appeared to be under scrutiny and weakened in relation to the powerful KPA and hardliners in the Worker’s Party. The April failure was not only a technical and scientific embarrassment but was also the first time that a North Korean leader was publicly humiliated and forced to admit a shortcoming. That sort of “papal infallibility” that used to be a virtue of previous leaders was suddenly unmasked in front of all North Koreans. However, along personal failure, this was also a dangerous sign of a weakness especially in the already turbulent relations with the military establishment.

Recent moves by Kim, tending to a timid relaxation of the rigid dirigist economy have further severed the relations with radicals in the regime. Farmers are now allowed to keep part of their production and constructions projects in Pyongyang are aimed at change and stimulate the image of the country. For many analysts this path, probably under Chinese financing, could be similar to the timid reforms introduced by Deng Xiao Ping in the ‘80s following his market’s socialism theory.

Taking into account the above, is then not surprising that the test achieves even more strength and significance. The successful launch give back to Kim Jong-un a sense of pride and recovered from a huge setback; makes him the first leader achieving the result and in a very short time. Nevertheless, is not all victory as Kim Jong-un had to compromise with the military and Worker’s Party by following a more prudent and vague strategy thus leaving also to critics space to joy.  The army and the party have obviously benefited too from the success, strengthening their propaganda aimed at the enemies and building a strong image of the country.

It appears anyway that Kim Jong-un has still a long road to go, before he can be sure to have consolidated his power. Reading behind the lines on the first statements coming from KCNA, for example, all credit has been given to Kim Jong-il “suggestions on previous errors” (perhaps from death?) and omit completely to mention Kim Jong-un. Only two days later, at the official celebration in Kim Il-Sung Square, the science chief greeted the leader for the accomplishment, not the military or workers party.

Scientific achievement or step closer to ICBM technology?

The launch has been a complete success for a country impoverished and isolated but still capable to achieve an extraordinary scientific achievement. If we exclude the regime’s propaganda, is out of doubt that this success put North Korea in a small club of space nations. However, the above judgment is true if we are making our consideration in relation to the scientific sphere. Different matter if we take into account the accusation of North Korea using the test as a cover to build an ICBM technology. But how far are they and how likely is that to happen?

North Korea has clearly capability on ballistic missiles, as shown already not only with this test but also with the impressive arsenal at disposal of short and medium range rockets. Nevertheless ICBM technology will require more than the above test. New missiles must be designed, capable not only to reach orbit but also to deliver a warhead by resisting the return into atmosphere; a space booster has to be assembled on a tower whilst a ICBM will require a more covert launch pad, like a mobile one; North Korea will need to fit a warhead, likely a nuclear one, for which more tests will required. North Korea has conducted nuclear tests in 2009 but the quantity of plutonium and tests itself were partially successful.

Obviously the above is a speculation based on what we have seen, recorded and admitted by North Korea. However, we should not forget that the secrecy is high and most of the real capability and disposal of nuclear weapons is still unclear. Based on the above, analysts tend to consider North Korea far from achieving ICBM technology and master the weaponry. In reality considering the last test there is a sense of nervousness, because if in April North Korea was on an “improbable tag” today is on the “probable one”. Two elements contributed in changing this rating and consider the possibility that the country will develop in the future an ICBM rocket: the fast pace of the progress and recent missiles paraded.

Both elements have something in common: North Korea may be not building the knowledge only by indigenous technology and know-how. The pace accelerated with an extraordinary progress from April making the above assumption more realistic; but is the second point that alarmed and removed skepticism. In April during a parade long range missiles on a mobile launcher were shown in Kim Il-Sung Square. Since then there has been huge speculation on how North Korea achieved that rockets and launchers and especially if they were real. Discordant opinions have been given on the subject, although general tendency is that they were probably a camouflage. However, the launchers were real and the camouflage may have been used for something they probably have rather  than for something nonexistent. The Chinese identification of the launchers made therefore clear a fact: North Korea is by legal or  illegal, direct or indirect means achieving technology from outside. The question is how and who is helping Pyongyang, creating ambiguity especially in the not so clear relation between Pyongyang and Beijing.

Test is a message to enemies and friends

The test is a clear message to enemies and friends of Pyongyang and is directed mainly to all the parties involved in this legacy, on which they have shared in common recent changes of leadership or electoral process.

The move is clearly once again directed especially to Washington; Obama re-election, although clear the way from a possible republican hardline presidency, represent for Pyongyang the necessity to remind an independent policy and not tolerating any sort of interference. In this behavior much has contributed especially the recent decision by US in allowing South Korea to install medium range missiles and repeated naval drills in the area. Increasing tensions in the China Sea between Japan and China and between China and rivals have put the US under attention in fact dragging them in the area.

Pyongyang does not accept US interference in the area and fear that the new pacific policy aimed at China in reality hide the desire to alter the geopolitical system and increasing the military capability of their allies.

The relations with China are therefore acquiring different significance. Pyongyang and Beijing seem to have more in common and need each other than previously thought. Beijing strategy is using North Korea as a wild card, but without real support in strengthening Pyongyang capability, seem to be at an end and; China may be not so cautious, preferring to see a strong North Korea ally in what is now becoming an area of increasing tension and of a likely new arm race.

International Reaction: Behind the Words, No Real Action

The People’s Republic of China, through the foreign ministry expressed concerns but at the same time invited all parties to avoid confrontation and hard measures. Move that as usual will mean one thing: no real action will follow after the UN condemnation.

Japan and South Korea condemned in strong terms North Korea as irresponsible and ignoring any international law as well as any restraint.

Russian foreign ministry released a statement stating “The new rocket launch carried out by North Korea flaunts the opinion of the international community, including calls from the Russian side, and leaves us with deep regret”

A spokesman for the US National Security Council described the launch as “another example of North Korea’s pattern of irresponsible behaviour”, and called for “a clear message that its violations of UN Security Council resolutions have consequences”.

The main accusations moved to North Korea can be summarised below:

-A violation of the moratorium in ballistic missile tests

-A threat to regional and world security

– Test for a satellite was in reality a long-range rocket test in disguise

UNSC condemned in strong words North Korea, but is very unlikely that a real action will follow without Chinese and Russian opposition.

The successful launch sparked uneasiness especially in Washington where now there are question marks on the possibility of North Korea developing ICBM. This successful test left the international community with the following feelings:

-North Korea, that was seen in April far from mastering space technology and LRICBM, is in reality making quick progresses.

-At present there is no danger for US territory but there is concern that North Korea may be able to acquire that necessary technology and being able to develop an LRICBM.

-There is still uncertainty on Kim’s leadership over the military.

-North Korea has more resources than believed and whose connections are not always so clear.

The US, that have been the major key player in this last 10 years of legacy, have lost that sense of security matured in April and, although not immediate, in the future may happen that their territory could be under range of North Korean missiles. Obama entourage in this second term are therefore in a different situation compared to the past: continue in the containment policy or engage Pyongyang directly? As we have mentioned several times, the US are pursuing a new strategy pointing towards the Pacific. North Korea, as China, did not welcome the announcement by President Obama. Even though this policy is clearly aimed at the Chinese, North Korea knows that is in the range of US desire for a different geopolitical system. The test was for North Korea the clear sign that they work actively in building a deterrent.

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 as chemical and bacteriological weapons, without counting a powerful and full-armed army. The test, even if confirmed for LRICBM, is clearly designed in anti-american stance and this does not alter Pyongyang hostility for Seoul and Tokyo.

China, a long-term ally of Pyongyang, is the key point of ambiguity and concern. In then past the western powers always believed that Beijing was between the hammer and anvil. In the past China has seemed uncomfortable with North Korea due to the major interest of the Chinese in presenting the country as a trusted economic partner as well as a solid market. This is now changing and the Chinese are not trusted anymore in their relations with Pyongyang, 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 as the navy. China therefore sees North Korea as a valuable card to play to keep these rivals at large: make sure the Pyongyang regime does not collapse and give that sort of boost to underpin western desires. The other reason for concerns in China is related to the recent change of leadership that will lead a traditional and conservative policy internally and a more aggressive externally. The major concern is that Beijing could be helping Pyongyang in making progresses through financial support necessary to obtain the technology and know-how necessary to develop that deterrent.

North Korea remains therefore a threat to regional and global security, and the successful test will lead likely to more tensions. Kim Jong-un has already announces that new rockets will be tested and whether they will be for a peaceful means or to build a nuclear capability, it will only become clear at the next move of this unpredictable country.


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