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Updated: Apr 10, 2012

FAQ: North Korea's Upcoming Space Launch

CNS has compiled an FAQ to keep you informed as North Korea prepares for its upcoming rocket launch.
Author(s): CNS Staff

Posted: April 10, 2012

A Note on Terminology

North Korea has a number of military ballistic missiles. (See Table 1: North Korea's ballistic missile arsenal.) These missiles are best known by the names assigned by the United States intelligence community, which usually reflects the nearest populated place to where the missile was first seen. These include the Nodong, Taepodong, and Musudan missiles, all named for villages close to a single site, the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground.

North Korea describes launches in 2009 and now 2012 as part of the Unha
(은하 or "Galaxy") series of space launchers (in official translations called "carrier rockets"). The United States refers to these rockets as the Taepodong-2. In 1998, North Korea attempted to launch a satellite using a different rocket called the Baekdusan (백두산), referred to as the Taepodong-1 in the United States. North Korea named each satellite it attempted to launch Kwangmyongsong (광명성 or Lode Star). (See Table 2: North Korea's Long-range Rocket Launches.)

1. When will the launch take place?

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that North Korea will launch a satellite into orbit between April 12-16, 2012, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, North Korea's founder. Additional documentation, submitted by North Korea to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), states that the launch will take place between 7:00 am and 12:00 noon local time. The exact date and time are likely to be determined by weather, the readiness of the launch vehicle, and other factors, such as visits by North Korea's leadership.

North Korea also plans a military parade in honor of the 80th anniversary of the Korean People's Army on April 15, which may include the first public display of a new North Korean ICBM.

2. What type of rocket will North Korea launch?

North Korea calls the rocket the Unha-3, suggesting that it will be similar to rockets launched in 2006 and 2009. The United States calls the Unha series of rockets the Taepodong-2, after the place where the rocket was first observed.

The Unha-2 was a three-stage rocket based on ballistic missile technologies developed for use by North Korea's military, including the Nodong and Musudan intermediate range ballistic missiles. The Unha-2 first stage was a cluster of Nodong engines. The Unha-2 second stage appears to be an SS-N-6, which is also the basis of the Musudan missile. The Unha-3 third-stage appears to be identical to the upper stage of Iran's Safir-2 launch vehicle, which also made use of SS-N-6 components.

Based on the locations North Korea provided to the International Maritime Organization indicating where the rocket stages are expected to fall that and photographs of the launch preparations, the Unha-3 should be quite similar to the Unha-2 with a slightly larger third-stage.

3. What kind of satellite is North Korean trying to put into orbit?

KCNA describes the Kwangmyongsong-3 as a "polar-orbiting earth observation satellite." According to data provided to the International Telecommunications Union, the satellite will broadcast video back to the earth. A different KCNA interview with a vice director of the Space Development Department of the Korean Committee for Space Technology (KCST) claims that North Korea "will assess the distribution of forests and natural resources of the DPRK, the level of natural disaster, the crop estimate, etc. and collect data necessary for weather forecast, natural resources prospecting and others," which is a normal use for earth observation satellites. The announced launch trajectory, almost exactly due south, is what one would expect to place a satellite in a polar orbit, in which a satellite passes above (or very nearly above) both poles of the earth. However, the same KCNA interview also suggests that the satellite will be in a "solar synchronous orbit at 500km high altitude." The new solar synchronous description conflicts with the notices to airmen (NOTAMS) that were previously filed, raising doubt about the intended orbit of the satellite.

4. Where is North Korea's launch site?

Satellite images show preparations for a launch at Sohae Satellite Launching Station, near Dongchang-dong, Cheolsan-gun, Pyonganbuk-do, North Korea (39°39'35.88"N, 124°42'20.43"E). North Korea completed the facility in January 2011 after a decade under construction. The Unha-3 launch in April 2012 will be the first rocket launch from this new site. The launch tower is over 50 m tall, which far exceeds the needs of an Unha launch. It is likely that this additional capacity is for the eventual development of larger rockets.

5. Is there any difference between space launches and missile launches?

Space launches and missile launches follow slightly different trajectories and the rocket itself may be optimized for one purpose or the other--a space launch only has to go up, while a ballistic missile usually must reenter the Earth's atmosphere with its payload intact. A country like North Korea can also afford to spend several days assembling and fueling a rocket for a space launch; this is obviously undesirable as a weapons system.

The basic technologies, however, are identical, including the structural components, engines, and fuel. It is very common for a country to covert a long-range missile into carrier rocket for satellites. North Korea is no exception – the Unha rocket relies heavily on military technologies used in Nodong and Musudan missiles. Similar data is collected on propulsion, guidance, and operation from either type of launch to further develop either program.

6. Is this legal?

After North Korea conducted missile tests and a test of a nuclear weapon in 2006, and again in 2009, the UN Security Council passed a number of resolutions demanding that North Korea halt its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1718 states that "that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching." UNSCR 1874 "demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology."

North Korean officials claim that the Security Council Resolutions are illegal and that under the Outer Space Treaty, which North Korea signed just before its April 2009 launch, it has a right to right to the peaceful exploration of space. The vast majority of states that operate satellites in orbit do not have their own rocket programs, but rather purchase launch services from commercial vendors in a handful of countries.

7. Does South Korea have a space program?

South Korea operates satellites launched by other countries, but has not yet successfully launched a satellite on its own launcher. South Korea's first indigenously developed and produced satellite, Korea Multipurpose Satellite (KOMPSat-1) also known as Arirang-1, was placed in orbit in 1999, by a US rocket. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI), South Korea's aeronautics and space agency has since placed 12 more satellites in orbit, of which 5 are currently operational.

South Korea is developing a two-stage launch vehicle now designated Naro-1, previously known as the Korea Space Launch Vehicle-1 (KSLV-1). The large first stage of this launcher was developed by Russia. Launches in August 2009 and June 2010 failed to put a satellite in orbit. A third attempt is scheduled for October 2012. South Korea's launches follow a path very similar to the path North Korea says the Unha-3 will follow.

8. Where will the rocket go? Will it fly over Japan?

If it follows the announced flight path, the Unha-3 will fly directly south, over the ocean. In doing so, it will pass over the area of Japan's southern Ryukyu Islands. In this respect, it does not differ materially from South Korea's Naro-1, whose flights were to have passed directly over Okinawa. Unlike past North Korean launches, the Unha-3 will not fly east, over Japan's main islands. North Korea announced its splash-down zones to the International Maritime Organization, indicating the first stage would land off the west coast of South Korea, and the second stage would land off the east coast of the Philippines's Luzon Island.

Although the missile is expected to fly over the ocean, it will pass close to South Korea, the Philippines, as well as some islets that are part of Japan. US officials have expressed concerns about the "the stability of the missile" questioning "where the actual impact will be."

9. Will the United States, South Korea, or Japan shoot it down?

No, it is unlikely that the United States, South Korea, or Japan would, or could, intercept the rocket.

Although the launch is in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, shooting down the rocket would be even more provocative. Moreover, American, South Korean, and Japanese missile defense interceptors, such as PAC-3 and SM-3, are designed to intercept ballistic missiles in either the midcourse or reentry phase of their flight, not during the boost phase.

Japan's Minister of Defense announced that Japan will deploy Aegis destroyers with SM-3 interceptors in the Sea of Japan (East Sea) and the East China Sea, and PAC-3 ground-based interceptors near Tokyo and some of its southern islands. This move is intended to assuage public fears that the missile may go off course or large pieces of debris from the launch may threaten populated areas.

10. Could this missile reach the United States? Could it carry a nuclear weapon?

A ballistic missile based on the Unha rocket, in theory, would be able to deliver a 1,000 kg payload – large enough for some nuclear weapons – as far as Alaska, Hawaii, or part of the lower 48 states. That said, both of North Korea's previous launches in 2006 and 2009 failed, raising serious doubts about the reliability of the Unha. It is also worth mentioning that North Korea is taking several days to erect and fuel the missile. While fine for a space launch, such a long preparation time is undesirable for a military system. Although the Unha is clearly a step toward such a capability, it does not in itself represent a reliable system capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the continental United States.

11. Does this action violate the so-called "Leap Day Deal" that North Korea and the United States announced on February 29?

As part of the "Leap Day Deal," North Korea agreed to a moratorium on "long-range missile launches." The United States says that it made clear during talks that any space launch would count as a "long-range missile launch" and would be a "deal breaker." The North Koreans insist that they made clear they did not regard their forthcoming satellite launch as a long-range missile launch, and made their own position clear to the United States.

The "Leap Day Deal" involved a pair of unilateral statements – one by North Korea and another by the United States –– with many discrepancies. Both sides nevertheless refer to it as a deal or agreement.

12. What will happen to the "Leap Day Deal"?

Speaking in Seoul after the North Korean launch announcement, President Obama described the situation as a choice for Pyongyang. Although the United States claimed that nutritional assistance is not linked to the other parts of the "Leap Day Deal," the President indicated that it would not be possible to negotiate an agreement on nutritional assistance if Pyongyang did not keep its word on other agreements. Senior US officials have since indicated that negotiations to provide nutritional assistance have been suspended. Obama also implied that, if North Korea proceeds with the launch, the United States will seek another round of UN Security Council sanctions.

North Korea, for is part, has warned that its launch is not in contravention of the "Leap Day Deal." It could respond to the suspension of nutritional assistance by revoking the moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment. North Korea may also withdraw its invitation to the IAEA to negotiate monitoring arrangements for the moratorium on uranium enrichment.

For additional information, we suggest the following online resources: Arms Control Wonk, All Things Nuclear, 38North, and North Korea Tech.

Table 1: Selected North Korean Ballistic Missiles (MTCR-class*)
Missile Stages Range (km) Propellant Deployment mode Number
Scud B 1 300 Liquid Road-mobile Fewer than 100
Scud C 1 600 Liquid Road-mobile  
Nodong 1 1300 Liquid Road-mobile Fewer than 50
New IRBM (Musudan) 1 3200 Liquid Mobile Fewer than 50**
Taepodong 2 2 5500 Liquid Undetermined Not yet deployed
New ICBM ? 10000 Liquid Mobile? Not yet deployed
*Scud-B falls below MTCR-thresholds.
**North Korea's Musudan missile has not yet been flight tested. Data is drawn from Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report, Department of Defense, February 2010 and Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, National Air and Space Intelligence Center, August 2009.

For more information, see: North Korea Country Profile, prepared by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, at: http://www.nti.org/country-profiles/north-korea/delivery-systems/
Table 2: DPRK Long-Range Missile Launches
Year Launcher Stated Purpose Notes
1998 TD-1 Experimental satellite launch
(Kwangmyongsong-1)
Third stage failure; North Korea claims satellite successfully placed into orbit.
2006 TD-2 One of several "successful missile launches" that "were part of the routine military exercises staged by the KPA to increase the nation's military capacity for self-defence." First stage failure after 42 seconds.
2009 Unha-2 (TD-2) Communications satellite launch
(Kwangmyongsong-2)
Third stage failure; North Korea claims satellite successfully placed into orbit.
2012 Unha-3 (TD-2) Earth observation satellite launch (Kwangmyongsong-3)  
Source: James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute, North Korea Missile Chronology. Available at: http://www.nti.org/analysis/articles/north-korea-missile-chronology/

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