How did North Korea fix its rocket program so quickly?

December 12, 2012

South Koreans watch TV news reporting North Korea's rocket launch. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea successfully fired a long-range rocket into orbit for the first time ever late Tuesday, Eastern time. The Post's Chico Harlan, from Tokyo, explains why this is such a big deal:

Though the Unha-3 rocket did not carry a warhead, it relied on technology similar to that of a long-range missile. ... [This] would mark a significant breakthrough in its decades-long attempt to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States and would present a new threat for the Obama administration.

We'll have more throughout the day on the larger implications of the launch; Harlan already has a must-read up on the dilemma that North Korean provocation poses for the Obama administration. But, for now, it's worth considering the rocket itself, a somewhat surprising success after such a long string of failures. Here is what Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell writes today on his "space report" e-mail service about the rocket's apparent trajectory. McDowell compares this North Korean launch to the previous three, all failures, highlighting the significance of this sudden success:

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (Choson Minjujuui Inmin Konghwaguk) carried out its fourth satellite launch attempt at around 0049-0051 UTC on Dec. 12. The Unha-3 rocket carried the second flight model of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite. Initial reports indicated that the first and second stages of the rocket fired successfully with second stage impact near the Philippines. US tracking then cataloged object 39026 as 2012-072A in a 494 x 588 km x 97.4 deg sun-synchronous orbit with a 0900 local time descending node; two further objects were cataloged in similar 497 x 582 and 498 x 570 km orbits.

'Kwangmyongsong' means 'lodestar' or 'star of hope' and is believed to be a reference to former leader Kim Jong Il. I believe the launch is consistent with flight on an 88 deg trajectory from Sohae launch site followed by a yawed third stage burn to put the satellite in a 97 deg orbit.

North Korean satellite attempts:
--------------------------------
Date Rocket Payload Planned orbit Result

1998 Aug 31 Paektusan-1 Kwangmyongsong-1 219 x 6978 km x 41 deg Stage 3 failed, fell in ocean
2009 Apr 5 Unha-2 Kwangmyongsong-2 490 x 1426 km x 41 deg Stage 3 failed, fell in ocean
2012 Apr 12 Unha-3 Kwangmyongsong-3 500 x 500 x 97.4 Stage 1 failed, short range
2012 Dec 12 Unha-3 Kwangmyongsong-3/F2 500 x 500 x 97.4 494 x 588 x 97.4, success

North Korea's apparent success seems even more significant given the speed with which the program went from failure to success. "Rocketry is an extraordinarily difficult engineering task," Robert Beckhusen explained at Wired. "It’s not uncommon for developed countries with advanced rocket programs to fail at it." 

Beckhusen noted that many experts wondered how North Korea could possible fix the problems in time after its last launch failure, just in April. "The time frame between launches may just be too short for North Korea to have made significant upgrades." He points to an article from just two days ago by missile expert David Wright, who said that at the time that the available information "calls into question whether North Korean engineers could have identified and remedied the problems in time for a December launch." And yet they did, assuming that North Korea's rocket test was indeed successful.

This raises a nagging question: How did Pyongyang do it? How did the impoverished, isolated country manage such an advance in so short a period?

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Max Fisher · December 12, 2012