Monday, April 06, 2009

Did the North Korean Launch Go Exactly as Planned?

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?


Jan Moren said...

There is one argument for launching a satellite that you don't seem to consider: Everybody else has one.

I know, high level politics and international relations are supposed to be cool, rational, calculated activities. But leaders and senior officials (in politics or business) are just as human and just as status conscious as the rest of us (and perhaps more), and the "all the other countries/companies are laughing at us" argument, and the "but everybody else has one" argument (corporate jets, remember?), and the "we don't get to play with the others without it" argument all have a surprising amount of force.

North Korea probably doesn't need a communications satellite. But then, neither does Japan (or India) need a space program of their own either; here's lots of launch options available on the open market after all. France doesn't need a carrier fleet, Sweden doesn't need its own fighter plane, the US doesn't need three carmakers, and half the flag carriers of the world could probably disappear without losing anything else than some peoples' misplaced pride.

Never underestimate normal human foibles as driver for world events, no matter how weighty.

Durf said...

It's worth noting that the last time they did a "satellite launch" they followed up with proud announcements that the thing was in orbit, beeping out the praises of the Dear Leader (although nobody else on the planet was able to spot the thing). No such announcements coming down the KCNA wire this time around?

Jun Okumura said...

Janne: Haha. You certainly hit a point there about humanity with the demonstration effect. And appearances are certainly an important element for the North Korean regime in maintaining its hold on its people as well as its variety of power centers. But regimes rarely if ever decide that they “want” an aerospace program just for the hell of it; it’s a very expensive undertaking. They want to be self-reliant as self-reliant as possible where military technology is concerned, and they see major industrial and commercial benefits of high tech R&D as well. (In Japan, self-imposed constraints on military exports have severely cramped its military aerospace industry; that’s why Japan has so little presence there.) So saying that North Korea wants one because its neighbors have it doesn’t really introduce an independent element.

Durf: The following is an excerpt from an April 5 report (updated today) on the KCNA website (there are no direct links to the article itself). You can imagine what they’re telling their own people.

At 11:20 a.m. the satellite Kwangmyongsong-2, a shining product of self-reliance, soared into space by carrier rocket Unha-2. It was smoothly and accurately put into its orbit 9 minutes and 2 seconds after being completely separated from the carrier rocket.

Expressing great satisfaction over the fact that scientists and technicians of the DPRK successfully launched the satellite with their own wisdom and technology, he highly appreciated their feats and extended thanks to them.

Julián Ortega Martínez said...

Jun, this is the direct link to the KCNA propaganda wire you've quoted.

Jun Okumura said...

Thanks, Julián.

Incidentally, I found that if you click through from the KCNA home page, you stay with the original url, but when you open in a new tab, you get a new url, from which you can click through to more urls. There’s a little more to it, but that’s all you need to know if you want to link to individual news items there. That shouldn’t be a difficult thing to remedy, except I can’t imagine them getting a lot of helpful feedback.

Durf said...

Thanks for the link. I noticed some glowing praise for the successful launch soon after I posted that last comment, actually, along with commentary from abroad about how the scientists would certainly make such announcements to avoid the wrath of Dear Leader.

Jun Okumura said...

Durf: Your comment reminds me of a story about Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program, which you may already know. There was some serious post-war talk about Saddam believing Iraq was making a lot of progress on its nuclear program when in fact it wasn’t because his scientists kept lying to him out of well-justified fear. My own pre-war theory (which a friend of mine actually put to a White House national security contact, who dismissed it) was that Saddam was resisting inspections because he didn’t have a nuclear program anymore and didn’t want any of his enemies to know that. President Bush could have saved himself a lot of grief if he’d only bother to ask me…