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North Korea's Space Launch

Tariq Rauf

Space launch vehicle (SLV) versus intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) launched a space launch vehicle (SLV) on 7 February 2016 at around 09:00 local time in DPRK, with the aim of placing a satellite into the Earth’s orbit.

Until more information is provided by North Korea on the SLV launch one can only speculate on the type and characteristics of the SLV and the satellite.

Until now, the most advanced SLV flight-tested by North Korea has been the Unha-3 (Galaxy). Reportedly, the Unha-3 has three load-bearing stages carried aloft by a cluster of 4 rocket engines, and the estimated payload capacity is in the range of 500-600 kg, while the estimated flight range could be up to 10,000 km.

North Korea is also thought to be developing a more capable SLV, the Unha-9 and it is possible that this was the SLV used in the launch. However, the Unha-3 clearly is a SLV and not an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

An ICBM requires a short burn-time of the rocket engines in order to minimize gravitational losses and the risk of early interception in boost-phase by anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems. The typical ICBM rocket motor burn time is about 180-320 seconds. 

The Unha-3 boost-phase is estimated at to be between 550-570 seconds. For ICBM purposes, this longer rocket motor burn time would necessitate a significantly delayed release of the payload (warhead, decoys and/or counter-measures) and thus would increase its vulnerability to ABM systems, such as the Aegis sea-based component of the US missile defence system. Aegis is due to be deployed by Japan’s Maritime Self Defence Force and could be deployed by the South Korean Navy in the future.


North Korea’s satellites

On 12 December 2012, the Unha-3 successfully deployed a Kwangmyongsong-3 (Bright Star) satellite into the Earth’s orbit. North Korea claimed that the satellite’s mission was to observe the Earth, including to gather weather, agricultural and environmental information.

North Korea is thought to be developing more capable satellite prototypes and the launch on 7 February was a Kwangmyongsong-4, as announced by North Korea.

North Korea’s SLV and satellite developments are not so different from those of other states that have developed and deployed similar technologies, i.e. sequential development of more capable machines.


North Korea’s ballistic missiles

North Korea has a number of ballistic missile systems: short-range ballistic missiles; Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles; Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs); Taepodong-2 and KN-08 regional/intercontinental-range ballistic missiles; and KN-11 sea-launched ballistic missiles.


Regional developments

All of North Korea’s neighbours have advanced SLV programmes. Japan, for example, has the Mitsubishi M2A and M2B heavy space launch vehicles (HSLVs) with a payload capacity of about 4000-6000 kg for the H2A and up to 8000 kg for the H2B. The last launch of the H2B HSLV was on 19 August 2015. Japan has used the H2A SLV to launch an Unmanned Space Experiment Recovery System which comprises a re-entry module, i.e. a re-entry vehicle that is ejected by the SLV and re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and a service module that returns to Earth after a short period in orbit. The technology for recovering re-entry modules could be relevant for re-entry vehicles of ballistic missiles carrying a nuclear payload – i.e. similar to the Russian and US re-entry vehicles carrying nuclear weapons, decoys and counter-measures. South Korea has the Naro-1 SLV which successfully deployed an earth observation satellite on 30 January 2013.


International sanctions on North Korea

United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 was adopted by consensus on 14 October 2006, under Chapter VII, Article 41, of the UN Charter, which makes it mandatory for North Korea to ‘not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile’, ‘suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme’ and ‘abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner’. The Security Council also adopted Resolution 1874 on 12 June 2009, Resolution 2087 on 22 January 2013, and Resolution 2094 on 7 March 2013 along similar lines.

Several states, including Japan, South Korea and the USA, have condemned North Korea for not observing the Security Council’s resolutions. Likely a new resolution will be introduced shortly in the aftermath of the latest SLV launch and the 6 January 2016 nuclear test by North Korea, as noted in the Security Council’s Press Statement issued in New York on the 7 February that stated: ‘this launch, as well as any other DPRK launch that uses ballistic missile technology, even if characterized as a satellite launch or space launch vehicle, contributes to the DPRK’s development of nuclear weapons delivery systems…’.


Conclusions: The need for new dialogue

Adopting additional punitive Security Council resolutions clearly is a losing proposition. These resolutions have not made any dent on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile activities and UN sanctions have disproportionally impacted the long-suffering civilian population. A popular saying goes that doing the same thing repeatedly despite getting the same negative results is a sure sign of madness. The Security Council would do well to heed this saying.

The way forward is not yet more resolutions against North Korea but to start a negotiation track that addresses the security concerns of both North Korea and its neighbours. There can be no military solution and no solution based on increasing economic and political pressure. Just as Iran’s nuclear file was resolved through diplomatic means only after it had created facts on the ground—nearly 20,000 centrifuges and more than 2 tonnes of enriched uranium, despite ‘crippling sanctions’—the only viable way to address the situation in North Korea is through engagement.

North Korea is also creating facts on the ground: four nuclear tests since 2006, and flight-tests of ballistic missiles and SLVs. The diplomatic track for North Korea should address the security concerns of all sides, seek verified restraints on North Korea’s nuclear and missile/SLV programmes, develop elements of a peace treaty between South and North Korea, re-consider nuclear security assurances by the USA to Japan and South Korea, and review military forces and expenditures of North Korea, South Korea and Japan. Previously flawed policies led to North Korea crossing the Rubicon by becoming the ninth country to test and deploy nuclear weapons—an entirely preventable outcome. There is no time to waste.


Tariq Rauf is the Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Programme.