CNS Experts Available for Comment on North Korea’s Rocket Launch

Jeffrey Lewis
Jon Wolfsthal
Melissa Hanham
Stephanie Lieggi
Miles Pomper
December 12, 2012

Launch of the Unha-3 SL

Launch of the Unha-3 SLV,
Korean Central News Agency

On December 12, 2012, North Korea’s state news agency, KCNA, announced that an Unha-3 rocket placed the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite into orbit at 9:59:13 KST, 9 minutes and 27 seconds after launch. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) confirmed its own detection of the launch on a southerly azimuth at 7:49 p.m. EST; the first stage of the rocket dropped into the Yellow Sea and the second stage into the Philippine Sea.

North Korea confirmed that an object was placed in a 499.7 km perigee altitude and 584.18 km apogee altitude at an inclination of 97.4°. South Korean military officials stated that it was unclear if the satellite was functioning properly. While North Korea refers to this activity as a space launch, the technology and training employed in such an endeavor is similar to that needed for a nuclear-capable long-range missile. In April 2012, a similar North Korean rocket launch ended in failure.

The timing of the launch was unexpected after KCNA announced the launch window had extended through December 29 due to a “technical deficiency in the first-stage control engine module of the rocket carrying the satellite.” Pyongyang had initially announced a launch widow of December 10-22, which overlapped auspicious events like the anniversary of Kim Jong-Il’s death and the South Korean presidential election.

The Unha-3 was developed by North Korea’s military and is the same rocket launched in April 2012. It is a three stage rocket based on the design of the Unha-2 using Nodong and Musudan technology. In theory, a rocket like the Unha-3 could carry a nuclear payload of 1,000 kg up to 10,000 km. KCNA describes the satellite as the “second version” of the Kwangmyongsong-3, which is identified as a “polar-orbiting earth observation satellite.” The launch took place from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, near Dongchang-dong, Cheolsan-gun, Pyonganbuk-do, North Korea (39°39’35.88″N, 124°42’20.43″E).

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned North Korea’s action. Japan, South Korea, and the United States requested an emergency UN Security Council meeting in response to the event. China and Russia both expressed regret over the launch. UN Security Council 1874, passed in June 2009, “demands that the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology.” North Korean officials claim that the resolutions are illegal and that they have the right to space exploration under the Outer Space Treaty.

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