[Viewpoint] Three facts about the Unha-3 failure

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[Viewpoint] Three facts about the Unha-3 failure

There are three things worth noting about last week’s spectacularly failed rocket launch by North Korea. All week, we were treated to images of the North Koreans going out of their way to invite Western media into the country for the centenary celebrations of Kim Il Sung. A centerpiece of this nation-building exercise was the Unha-3 rocket. We were fed expert assessments by Western visitors that the payload was in fact a satellite and that the launch appeared to be for peaceful purposes, and not the ballistic missile that led the U.S. to cancel the Feb. 29 deal.

Here is a small detail that people seem to forget in this debate: North Korea does not have a civilian space program. The entirety of its space program consists of the previous two rocket launch attempts in 1998 and in 2009, both of which failed and came close to dropping stages of the missile on Japan.

The 1998 launch carried the Kwangmyongsong-1. For spaceheads, a satellite must be able to broadcast on a high frequency in order to project images and signals to earth. The frequency of this first satellite was 27 MHz, according to experts - this is the frequency used for your kid’s radio-controlled toy car. The 2009 satellite used a higher frequency, but there is no evidence that the North succeeded in putting this one into orbit either, or any evidence that the North could communicate with any orbiting satellite and receive data from it.

Moreover, according to my late Georgetown colleague, law and space expert Christopher Joyner, North Korea has not participated actively in the international conferences and organizations like the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Space or the International Academy of Astronautics that comprise today’s space regime.

Here is the second interesting fact. The Kwangmyongsong-3, which exploded 81 seconds after liftoff on Friday had a state power capacity of 200 watts and weighed about 100 kilograms (220 pounds). This is a small satellite - what some would call a microsatellite - by international standards. This may be all that the North Koreans can produce given the crippling international sanctions and its self-imposed isolation. China helped them with the first satellite and has since stopped.

Not coincidentally however, the weight of this satellite payload is the approximate weight of a crude nuclear warhead with a one kiloton yield. North Korea is following the path of the Soviet Union and China. Both of their rocket programs were for military application first and foremost, despite rhetoric to the contrary. The objective was to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to the United States. Only after they achieved this was there an interest in a space program.

The third interesting fact came to be known after the Unha-3 was launched. When an event like this happens, usually a premium is placed on gathering as much information as soon as possible about the launch. But perhaps even more important is making certain that there is coordination among the U.S. and its allies about the information before it gets out to the press. For example, when North Korea did its first nuclear test in October 2006, the U.S., Japan and the South Korea were each receiving information about the test, but did not release anything to the public until we all had coordinated our information and reached an agreed upon assessment.

It seemed like the contrary was the case last Friday morning. Initial reports of the Unha-3’s explosion were leaked by Pentagon officials to CNN. Then the Japanese Defense Agency announced that the launch had failed with pieces of debris falling into the Yellow Sea. The South Korean defense ministry appeared to be the only disciplined player as it would not confirm news reports that the rocket had failed.

This sort of uncoordinated response to the launch leaves much to be desired. It does not seem that important now because the launch failed, but coordinated responses would have been much more important had the rocket succeeded in putting a satellite into orbit.

The three allies must work on improving coordinated crisis response to the next North Korean missile or nuclear test.

*The author is a professor at Georgetown University and Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

by Victor D. Cha
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