Just as expected, North Korea executed another long-range rocket launch on Saturday morning. The Hermit Kingdom says the rocket’s mission was to put its so-called “Shining Star No. 4 earth viewing satellite” into low-earth orbit, and it looks like they did just that.
The launch was first detected by a South Korean AEGIS equipped destroyer as the rocket rose from North Korea’s Sohae Launch Station along the country’s west coast. The first stage separation was seen visually and NORAD said the rocket’s southern route posed no danger to the U.S. or its allies.
Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command, said the following regarding the success of the launch:
Initial observations, available on the publicly-available website Space-Track.org, indicate these two objects, NORAD catalog identification numbers 41332 and 41333, are at an inclination of 97.5 degrees.
These objects are almost certainly the payload and the rocket’s third stage.
Just looking at the pictures, the rocket used for the launch looks very much like the Unha class rockets used in the past few North Korean launches. These rockets share a close lineage to the liquid-fueled Taepodong-2 series of rockets used before them. In other words, North Korea’s actual rocket design evolution seems minimal, with the focus seemingly being improving the existing design for reliability. At best it is possible they could have introduced a solid-fueled third stage. In all, this lineage of rockets has now been in use by North Korea for a decade, with the first launch happening in 2006.
The BBC reports that South Korean lawmakers were told the payload most likely weighed around 440 pounds, and that is about double the weight of the payload from North Korea’s last major rocket launch in 2012.
North Korea went hard on their usual grandeur-filled fairy tale rhetoric when describing the launch: “The fascinating vapor of Juche satellite trailing in the clear and blue sky in spring of February on the threshold of the Day of the Shining Star.”
Some will say that these launches should be treated as ballistic missile tests more than anything else, and obviously, there is a dual use for such a rocket system. Yet these rockets rely on liquid fuel and sit on the pad for days before launch, giving ample time for all parties to prepare for their use. Nor does North Korea have a warhead capable of being used in such a ballistic missile.
So even though these launches are concerning in terms of development, they are not exactly an existential threat to the world at this time. Although, in the coming decades, if North Korea’s technological know-how continues to slowly improve, new missiles may be just that—especially solid-fueled ones that can be launched in short order and moved around more easily.
As always, the usual chorus within the international community decried the launch as breaking U.N. resolutions and defined it as a careless and provocative act. It is abundantly clear that North Korea couldn’t care less about such international citations and geopolitical concerns so none of that really matters, at least in the near term.
The U.N. Security Council is slated to hold an emergency meeting today, although more sanctions on North Korea are doubtful as China, which is a permanent member on the council, has already condemned the launch but said they are not in favor of additional sanctions because of it.
This launch comes shortly after North Korea tested yet another nuclear device and as tensions have been increasing once gain on the Korean Peninsula. It also serves as fodder for the ongoing debate as to whether or not South Korea should allow the U.S. to deploy advanced missile defense capabilities within its borders, namely the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system.
Now it would seem that this decision is much more likely to be made in the affirmative than it was before this latest rocket launch occured even over China’s objections. The deployment could lead to South Korea buying their own THAAD batteries in the future.