After announcing that its rocket was facing technical difficulties that might delay its impending test, North Korea surprised the international community by abruptly launching a three-stage rocket on Wednesday morning local time. Even more surprising than the timing was that the “Unha” (the Korean word for “galaxy”) rocket appears to have successfully placed the Kwangmyongsong-3 (“Shining Star-3”) satellite into orbit, albeit there are reports that it is encountering difficulties.
But space enthusiasts have nothing to cheer. Under the guise of developing a space launch vehicle, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is pursuing an intercontinental-range missile (ICBM) capability that would allow it reach targets as far away as California and Alaska. Long-range rockets designed as space delivery vehicles and long-range ballistic missiles intended to carry warheads use similar engines, boosters, and other technologies, though a satellite can be made lighter than a nuclear warhead, which needs a dense heat shield to withstand the high temperatures encountered in reentering the earth’s atmosphere. The Kwangmyongsong-3 weighs an estimated 100 kilograms, whereas a typical nuclear warhead weighs ten times more, though a good designer can make them far smaller and therefore lighter.
This was the fifth time the DPRK test launched a three-stage long-range missile potentially designed to reach the continental United States. Although the first four rocket tests failed, this most recent one has unexpectedly succeeded. The DPRK’s Taepodong (DPRK-named as Paektusan) long-range missiles use essentially the same technology as Unha and Paektusan rockets. The three-stage variants of these missiles have a potential range of perhaps 6,000-10,000 kilometers depending on the size of the payload it’s carrying, making it potentially sufficient to reach the western continental United States, which is roughly 9,000 km from North Korea.
The second rocket launch this year is yet another sign that the new generation of leaders in Pyongyang, led by Kim Jong-un, who assumed office last December, have not fundamentally departed from Kim Jong-il’s foreign and defense policies. In fact, DPRK propaganda has used the rocket test to glorify the achievements of the Kim dynasty. The DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that, “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,” a reference to North Korea’s first leader and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. The launch also commemorates the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death, and more than compensates for the embarrassment Kim Jong-un suffered when the test in April proved to be a spectacular failure.