Is the North Korean Satellite Launch a Game Changer?

Airbus Defense & Space and 38 North satellite imagery 2-4-16 Sohae Satellite Launch Station 2-5-16

Source: Reuters

North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Sunday carrying what it called an observational  satellite. However, its neighbors and Washington denounced the satellite launch as a violation of previous accords conducted in defiance of U.N. sanctions and just weeks after a nuclear bomb test. But was the test a game changer in terms of missile technology and development of a possible nuclear warhead capability or merely the lofting into orbit of a satellite for  observational, communications or other purposes. The answers, as usual, may be murky as regards what the Hermit Kingdom is up to in such dramatic demonstrations. Is it to buy bargaining leverage in negotiations with both South Korea and the Obama Administration, or is it something more concerning, perfecting an ICBM reaching US territory. We noted in an April 2015 NER/Iconoclast post on North Korean ICBM developments the comments of Admiral Bill Gortney of the Commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM)  at an April 7, 2015 Pentagon News Conference:


At the news conference, Adm. Gortney flatly stated, Pyongyang has “the ability to put a nuclear weapon on a KN-08 and shoot it at the homeland [the continental United States].” He expressed confidence that the U.S. could knock down such a missile if launched by North Korea or its ally, Iran.

He also admitted, however, that it is “very difficult” for the U.S. to counter the threat, because its intelligence is unable to follow the mobile ICBMs and give an efficient warning before they are launched.

Reuters noted in a report on Saturday:

U.S. Pacific Command said it had Aegis ballistic missile defense systems, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries and the Sea-Based X-Band Radar in the region, which would work with Japanese and South Korean militaries to detect the launch.


Reuters reported the aftermath of  the Sunday launch, N.Korean rocket puts object into space, angers neighbors & U.S.

The U.S. Strategic Command said it had detected a missile entering space and South Korea’s military said the rocket had put an object into orbit, quashing earlier media reports indicating the rocket might have failed in flight.

“Everything we have seen is consistent with a successful repeat of the 2012 (launch),” said U.S. missile technology expert John Schilling, referring to a previous launch of what the North said was a communications satellite.

“But it’s still too early to tell for sure,” said Schilling, who is involved in the “38 North” monitoring project at Johns Hopkins University.

The rocket was launched at around 9:30am Seoul time (7.30 p.m. ET/0030 GMT) in a southward trajectory. Japan’s Fuji Television Network showed a streak of light heading into the sky, taken from a camera at China’s border with North Korea.

North Korea, which last month exploded a nuclear device, had notified U.N. agencies that it planned to launch a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite, triggering opposition from governments that see it as a long-range missile test.

North Korean state television said it planned a “special announcement” at noon local time (0330 GMT).

The U.N. Security Council was likely to hold an emergency meeting on Sunday to discuss the launch, at the request of the United States, Japan and South Korea, diplomats said.

The United States was tracking the rocket launch and said it did not believe that it posed a threat to the United States or its allies, defense officials said.

The United States will work with the U.N. Security Council on “significant measures” to hold North Korea to account for its launch, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said.

Calling the launch a flagrant violation of U.N. resolutions on the country’s use of ballistic missile technology, Kerry reaffirmed the “ironclad” U.S. defense commitments to allies Japan and South Korea and called the launch a destabilizing and unacceptable challenge to peace and security.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the launch an unforgivable act of provocation.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called the launch “absolutely unacceptable”, especially after North Korea had tested a nuclear device last month.

“To launch a missile after conducting a nuclear test goes against the U.N. resolution. We will respond resolutely, coordinating closely with the international community,” he told reporters.

Japan had said that it was ready to shoot down the rocket if it threatened the country, but did not take any action to do so, Japan’s NHK reported.”

The AP reported on the implications and consequences of the latest North Korean  satellite launched by the  multi-stage Unha-3 or space launch vehicle (SLV) :

After several repeated failures, North Korea successfully put a satellite into orbit aboard its three-stage Unha-3 rocket in December 2012. The North’s space agency said Sunday it successfully put a new Earth observation satellite, the Kwangmyongsong 4, or Shining Star 4, into orbit less than 10 minutes after liftoff, and vowed more such launches. The United States and South Korea are still analyzing the launch.

South Korean defense officials say that a North Korean missile developed earlier than the Unha-3 rocket of 2012 has an estimated potential range of up to 10,000 kilometers (6,210 miles), which puts Hawaii and the northwest coast of the U.S. mainland within reach.

But critics say the North still has some technical barriers to surmount to achieve reliable nuclear weapons that can attack faraway targets. Among the important tasks facing North Korean scientists are thought to be building up a larger rocket that can fly farther and carry a heavier satellite or payload. This would be necessary if the North is going to develop a missile that can reach the entire U.S. mainland and be loaded with a warhead, which is several times heavier than the satellite the country launched in 2012.

The Unha-3 rocket from 2012 was about 30 meters (98 feet) tall and carried the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite, which weighed about 100 kilograms (220 pounds). The size of the satellite and rocket used in Sunday’s launch wasn’t immediately known.

Outside analysts say the successful flight of a rocket loaded with a satellite weighing about 1 ton (2,200 pounds) would mean the North likely could develop a nuclear-armed long-range missile.

The North has been upgrading its Sohae launch pad since its 2012 launch. Satellite imagery showed the country completed an expansion of its launch tower there in late 2014 to accommodate larger rockets.”

The AP report conclusions:

It’s almost certain that the North will be slapped with fresh U.N. sanctions for the launch.

But critics are skeptical over whether any new sanctions can stop North Korea from abandoning its nuclear and rocket programs because China, North’s last major ally and biggest aid benefactor and a veto-wielding power in the U.N. Security Council, is unwilling to cooperate on any harsh punishment on the North.

Beijing fears too much pressure on the North could cause it to collapse, pushing swarms of refugees over the countries’ border and establishing a unified Korea that hosts American troops on its doorstep.

The launch gives Kim, the North’s young leader, a chance to burnish his image domestically ahead of a landmark ruling Workers’ Party convention in May.

Because the North claims the launch as a success, it may think it has increased leverage in diplomatic negotiations and eventually propose talks with the United States and South Korea to try to win concessions, said professor Koh Yu-hwan at Seoul’s Dongguk University.”

There are several significant aspects of Sunday’s satellite launch by a multistage space launch vehicle (SLV) the Unha -3.

First, The Unha-3 SLV, according to NK. uses a liquid fuel booster stage which is vulnerable during launch. Further, it argues solid fuel ICBMs reduce the launch vulnerability exposure as they require minimal time for launch. Note this comment from John Schilling at 38N in Washington, DC: ‘North Korea would find it difficult to build an operational ICBM founded on the Unha-3 technology.” John Schilling, in 38 North, concludes that “The Unha-3, by comparison (to the KN-08 missile], looks like it was designed to launch satellites rather than warheads.”

Second ,this was the second successful launch of a multi stage vehicle; i.e., first stage liquid fuel booster and second and third solid fuel stages. That means that the North Korean have demonstrated the capability of potentially developing an ICBM and the domestic means of making solid propellant.

Third, couple this satellite launch with the January 6th nuclear test that some experts consider a boosted fission warhead, as former Reagan era defense official Dr. Stephen Bryen inferred in our NER  January 2016 article.

Fourth, the fact that the trajectory of launch was in a southward direction, meaning a polar orbit, makes it problematic for the US Missile Defense Command as we have limited over the horizon radar detection capabilities and may lack anti- missile installations to detect and destroy objects on the Gulf of Mexico approaches .

Some experts like Ambassador. Hank Cooper, former Reagan era SDI development chief and Dr. Peter Pry of the Congressional EMP Commission believe that ultimately if North Korea could develop a low yield warhead it might be capable of detonating and causing an Electronic Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect which could be devastating to the US. Cooper and ex-CIA Director Woolsey, also contend that if North Korea had a Fractal Orbiting Bomb System or FOBS with a nuke in a satellite that might be used to trigger an EMP. Other experts believe that North Korea doesn’t presently have that technology, but is conducting both nuclear and missile tests to acquire data for further development and simulations.

Nonetheless, we reported in a November 2015 NER/Iconoclast post, Cooper urging  the US BMD command to position Aegis BMD batteries in strategic locations on the US Gulf of Mexico Coast to  deter  possible FOBS threat from a southward polar orbit, as well as, from both ship and land based launched missile threats from rumored Iranian missile bases allegedly under construction in the Paraguana Peninsula of Venezuela. He reiterated those concerns in a February 2, 2016 High Frontier alert concerning  this current North Korean satellite launch.  There has been no confirmation of the alleged Iranian missile base in Venezeuela by either  the US BMD or Southern Commands.  The ship borne threats  in the Gulf of Mexico are more concerning. Iran has tested the ship borne scenario as long ago as 2008 in the Caspian Sea and may have acquired the Russian Klub-Series of anti-ship and cruise missiles in a ship container technology. Russian cruise missile technology was displayed in strikes on Syrian targets from vessels nearly 900 miles distant in the Caspian Sea.

So why is North Korea continuing to scare its neighbors South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the US, by violating both nuclear development and missile testing UN Sanctions? The answer, according to Dr. Bryen may be that to wants to have prestige and negotiating leverage from having achieved  SLV satellite launches, nuclear weapons testing and possible missile technologies breakthroughs. More likely he says  North Korea is in the arms business and wants to sell the data and technology to customers. A prominent customer he suggests may be Iran. North Korea has allegedly sold solid fuel missiles, notably BM25’s to Iran for placement in underground silos. The BM25 Mustang has a range of 3,500 kames (approximately 2,180) capable of covering targets in Europe. Iran is also interested in North Korea large booster rocket development.

While disquieting as Sunday’s North Korea satellite test may be the reality is US Ballistic Missile Shield now has to confront the reality that the Hermit State may have the capability to build, deploy and launch ICBMs like the mobile  KN-08 under development with the range to reach the US. At issue is how long it will take North Korea to perfect nuclear warhead technology to fit their ICBMs to sell to rogue customers like Iran. With this weekend’s satellite launch and an object in a polar orbit, perhaps it is sending back imagery and GPS information back to Pyongyang for those purposes. Stay tuned for further developments.




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