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Updated: Apr 8, 2009

North Korean Satellite Falls Short of Expectations

On April 5, North Korea carried out its launch but the three-stage rocket used appears to have failed in the final stage.
Author(s): Dean Knox, Graduate Research Assistant, East Asia Nonproliferation Program

Posted: April 8, 2009

North Korea attempted to orbit its Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite on April 5, 2009, within the launch window it had announced in March 2009. Despite North Korea's immediate claims of success, the space launch vehicle appears to have failed after passing over Japan, crashing into the Pacific Ocean along with its satellite payload. The space launch vehicle used for this launch—the Unha-2—is thought to be derived from the same technology that is used in North Korea's Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile system.


The Unha-2 space launch vehicle took off at 11:20 a.m. local time on April 5, 2009, and, according to North Korean news reports, achieved orbit approximately nine minutes later.[1] The North American Aerospace Defense Command, however, stated that "no object entered orbit."[2] Despite the provision of orbital data for the satellite—claimed to circle the earth roughly once every 104 minutes in an elliptical orbit at 40.6 degrees—no independent observer has been able to verify its existence.[3] The declaration of "success" mirrors the 1998 Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 failure, when North Korea released videos purporting to show the satellite in orbit along with its orbital parameters.

The Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 would have been a relatively rudimentary, lightweight satellite with some instrumentation and communications equipment. Preliminary calculations indicated that the satellite likely had a mass of 150-200 kg.[4] According to the Korean Central News Agency, "[the satellite] is sending to the earth the melodies of the immortal revolutionary paeans 'Song of General Kim Il Sung' and 'Song of General Kim Jong Il,'" the same songs supposedly broadcast by the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 in 1998.[5]

The first of the Unha-2's three stages appears to have operated as expected, separating without difficulty and landing within the specified splashdown zone. The launch vehicle flew over Japan without incident—Japan had previously threatened to shoot down any debris which fell towards its territory—alleviating concerns that a misstep could spark a much more serious confrontation. The fate of the missile following its flight over Japan is unclear. Initial news reports indicated that radar tracking was lost 1,300 km from the Japanese coast, which was interpreted by a number of news agencies as a crash.[6] If the loss of radar contact did indicate a crash (which is not necessarily true), this would mean that the missile's second stage detached from the first stage, achieved ignition, and flew a total of only 2,400 km, instead of the minimum expected distance of 3,200 km indicated by the closest border of the intended second stage splash-down zone. For the second stage to fall 800 km short of its intended landing zone despite succeeding in the most error-prone portions of its flight seems improbable: The guidance system apparently worked as expected, since the first stage fell well within its intended splash-down zone; the second stage evidently separated and achieved ignition, as the satellite successfully passed over Japan. Past this point, the propulsion is relatively straightforward—if a problem were to develop, it would in all likelihood have manifested itself early in the second stage's flight, not two-thirds of the way through the test. Far more plausible would be the assessment by South Korean analysts that the second stage landed just short of the splashdown zone, 3,100 km from the launch site[7]—a distance which would imply that the second stage worked more or less as planned and that the failure to achieve orbit stemmed primarily from difficulties with the third stage. Malfunctions in stage separation, which is widely acknowledged as one of the most challenging aspects of building long-range missiles, is believed to have caused the failure of North Korea's 1998 satellite launch as well.

Even with the failure of the third stage, however, North Korea still possesses an operable two-stage missile. In fact, the Taepodong-2 used as the launch vehicle was originally a two-stage design; in its conversion to a space launch vehicle, a third stage carrying the satellite was substituted for the warhead to loft the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 into orbit. If used as originally planned, the troubles encountered in the satellite launch would prove no difficulty at all—if necessary, the warhead could simply detonate on the second stage. In this configuration, the Taepodong-2 can probably carry a reasonably-sized 1,000 kg warhead to 3,750 km,[8] although some analysts suggest a distance as far as 6,000 km. [9] Such a range, though considerable, would mean that Hawaii and possibly Alaska would remain out of range. Despite the obvious concerns which follow, however, it is clear that North Korea's Taepodong-2 has not lived up to the extensive hype which preceded its launch.

Related Resources

For more background on the launch see:
Launch of North Korean "Communications Satellite" Draws Near, Raising Concerns of Regional Instability

North Korea Special Collection
All CNS nonproliferation content related to North Korea, including its ongoing nuclear crisis.
More Missile/Space topics
All CNS nonproliferation content on missile and space proliferation.
More East Asia topics
All CNS nonproliferation content related to East Asia, including North Korea, South Korea, China, Taiwan, and Japan.
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[1] "Kim Jong Il Observes Launch of Satellite Kwangmyongsong-2," Korean Central News Agency, April 5, 2009,
[2] "NORAD and USNORTHCOM Monitor North Korean Launch," North American Aerospace Defense Command, April 5, 2009,
[3] "KCNA on DPRK's Successful Launch of Satellite Kwangmyongsong-2," Korean Central News Agency, April 5, 2009,
[4] Joseph Cirincione, "Commentary: North Korean Launch Not a Cause for Panic," CNN, April 5, 2009,
[5] "KCNA on DPRK's Successful Launch of Satellite Kwangmyongsong-2."
[6] Steve Herman, "North Korea Fires Missile Over Japan," Voice of America, 5 April 2009,
[7] Hyung-Jin Kim, "Analysts: Rocket Gives NKorea New Bargaining Chip," Associated Press, April 6, 2009, in the New York Times,
[8] Joseph Bermudez, "A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK," Occasional Paper No. 2 (1999), Center for Nonproliferation Studies,
[9] David Wright, "Examining North Korea’s Satellite Launch Vehicle," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March 24, 2009,

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