The North Korean authorities have told their people that they successfully launched a satellite into orbit with their two-stage rocket Unha 2 (That’s “Milky Way 2” for you kanji-illiterates); the rest of the world says no, that the payload never separated from the second stage, which fell well short of North Korean projections as transmitted to the signatories of the Outer Space Treaty. So, did this venture end up somewhere between “mission accomplished” and a catastrophic crash into metropolitan Tokyo? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. I mean, what if they got exactly what they had planned for?
North Korea does not need a communications satellite. They don’t plan on giving their public a lot of bandwidth any time soon, and Kim Jong Il’s quite satisfied with basic cable, thank you. If they’re thinking of selling communications satellites, their surely very primitive technology will face stiff competition; we’re not talking about no-questions-asked nuclear weapons or ballistic missile technologies. So there was never much incentive for North Korea to put a satellite on top of that rocket. In fact, it would have been a waste of time and resources that the regime could ill afford.
Looked at as a pure two-stage, long-distance, ballistic missile test though, and the whole affair makes sense. There are only two things that really matter: the launch, and separation between the first and second stages—the test cleared them both. And the distance that the second stage flies can easily be controlled by the amount of fuel loaded onto the rocket. As corroborating evidence that the North Korean authorities knew exactly what they were doing, they never bothered to inform the international telecommunications authorities of the details regarding their intentions, which they would have had to do before putting a communications satellite into orbit. (It’s getting crowded out there.)
There’s the nasty little matter of the Americans and the Japanese telling the rest of world that your rocket failed its mission. But hey, politics, like history, is always local, and you can—did—tell your people what you want them to hear. Meanwhile, your military is happy, the Iranians are happy. So you have all your constituencies covered.
Okay, I can’t prove any of this. But it must make as much sense as any explanation that you’re going to hear in the coming days.
Will this kind of analysis do?