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For North Korea, a notable success amidst failure

N. Gopal Raj

There will be concerns that its rocket stage may turn up in other countries


“This rapid sequence of development is remarkable for a small developing country”

North Korea provided Nodong missile technology to Pakistan and Iran


Thiruvananthapuram: North Korea has failed yet again to put a satellite into orbit. Nevertheless, the recent launch of a three-stage rocket, which the North Koreans named Unha-2, appears to have provided the first successful flight of a first stage that Western analysts believe is bigger and more powerful than any the country has used before.

If so, given North Korea’s propensity to export its rocket technology, there are bound to be concerns that this rocket stage might turn up in other countries, including potentially Pakistan.

North Korea began its long-range missile programme by reverse engineering the tried-and-tested Soviet Scud liquid-propellant missiles.

Then in the space of about five years, between 1987 and 1992, North Korea began developing an improved version of the Scud as well as the Nodong, the Paektusan-1 (Taepodong-1), the Paektusan-2 (Taepodong-2) and the Musudan missiles, according to Daniel Pinkston, currently North East Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group. (The names ‘Nodong’ and ‘Taepodong’ were coined by the U.S. intelligence and are the old names for two administrative districts near the Musudan-ri launch site.)

“Unprecedented”

“This rapid sequence of development is remarkable and historically unprecedented for a small developing country,” wrote Dr. Pinkston in a report published by the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. “Some analysts believe that foreign assistance has been so extensive that North Korea’s ballistic missile programme more closely resembles procurement or licensed production rather than ‘near self-sufficiency in development and production’,” he added.

North Korea provided Nodong missile technology to Pakistan and Iran. In Pakistan, it became the basis for the Ghauri missile, which was first tested in 1998. Equipped with a nuclear warhead, the Ghauri is believed to have a range of over 900 km.

Iran used the Nodong technology to produce the Shahab-3 missile. Iran went on to develop the Safir launch vehicle that successfully put a small satellite into orbit in February this year. In August 1998, North Korea fired the Paektusan-1/Taepodong-1, using it as a three-stage launch vehicle carrying a small satellite.

“The first two stages appear to have worked but, based on radar tracking data, the third stage seems to have exploded and no satellite entered orbit,” according to an article on the website of the Federation of American Scientists.

North Korea does not seem to have tried to fix the problem. Instead, its next attempt in July 2006 involved an entirely new rocket, the Paektusan-2/Taepodong-2. The rocket, however, exploded just 40 seconds into the flight.

3-stage version

In its attempted satellite launch last Sunday (April 5), North Koreans used a three-stage version of the Paektusan-2/Taepodong-2 that they called the “Unha-2.” (The name ‘Paektusan’ has martial overtones, explained Dr. Pinkston in an email. On the other hand, ‘Unha’, which means galaxy or the Milky Way, has peaceful connotations.)

A satellite image of the Unha-2 on the launch pad showed that it was “a very large rocket,” Geoffrey Forden of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told this correspondent.

Later, based on images from the launch, Dr. Forden said in a posting on the blog ArmsControlWonk.com, “The first stage is not quite as large as I thought based on a slanted satellite view.” Nevertheless, the diameter of the first stage “appears quite large.”

The first stage of the Unha-2 could use a cluster of four engines, each similar to the single large engine in the Nodong missile, said David Wright, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, in an article published shortly before the launch in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The second stage could be a single Nodong engine or another engine of similar capability, which had been modified for high-altitude operation. While the first two stages used liquid propellants, the third could be a solid-propellant one.

“It’s a cluster! I cannot tell for sure whether or not its 2 or 4 engines but it is definitely a cluster,” exclaimed Dr. Forden in an update about the first stage on ArmsControlWonk.com based on images of the launch.

In Sunday’s launch, after Unha-2’s first stage was jettisoned, the stage splashed down in the Sea of Japan, exactly in the area North Korea had designated. What happened thereafter is not clear. “The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean,” said the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the U.S. Northern Command in a statement. “No object entered orbit,” they said.

Dr. Forden, however, noted: “Reports are starting to come in that the Unha-2 failed after the second stage burn was complete with the second stage splash down inside the predicted zone.”

North Korea therefore appears to have sorted out the problems that led to the big first stage exploding when Paektusan-2/Taepodong-2 was flight-tested three years ago. This time, the first stage seems to have been successful in flight, agreed Dr. Forden. “When you think about how big it was, that is an impressive accomplishment,” he told The Hindu.

How likely is it that the Unha-2 first stage and the technology for it will now go to Pakistan?

“I don’t think that Pakistan would be particularly interested in importing a large liquid-propellant stage at this point in its missile programme,” said S. Chandrashekar, currently a professor at the IIM-Bangalore. A former staffer at the headquarters of the Indian Space Research Organisation, Prof. Chandrashekar is also J.R.D. Tata Visiting Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS). He and his colleagues at NIAS published an assessment of Pakistan’s ballistic missile programme a few years ago and later an analysis of the Chinese missile programme as well.

The Nodong missile technology had been imported and used by the Khan Research Laboratories to produce the Ghauri missile, Prof. Chandrashekar told this correspondent. Independent of that effort, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission had developed the fully-solid Shaheen missiles, which had now been flight-tested.

Solid-propellant missiles had considerable technical and operational advantages over liquid-propellant ones, he said. All the indications were that Pakistan had created a robust domestic capability in solid propulsion.

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