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North Korea: Launching a Satellite to Demonstrate ICBM Capability

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 18, 2016

    North Korea undertook a nuclear test on January 6, 2016 and followed it up with a satellite launch on February 7, 2016. While it claimed the January 6 test as that of a Hydrogen bomb, seismological indications do not support that claim. In the case of the satellite launch, it was initially claimed by US agencies that the object delivered in space by the North Korean rocket is tumbling. But it was later reported that the ‘object’ has been brought under control. The launch has been termed as successful and the satellite is understood to be in good health.

    For the last couple of years the intentions of North Korea to develop an indigenous space programme have been looked at with suspicion. The country’s 2016 actions have even been criticized by China, its closest friend. With an eccentric political/military leadership being at the helm of affairs, it is natural that the act of launching of satellite gets viewed as an act of defiance and that North Korean investments in space launch vehicle technology have been viewed as a prelude to the development of Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). While global suspicions are obvious, the question is ‘are they realistic’?

    North Korea has been developing a space programme for many years now. Although it has claimed success in developing Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV) during the 1980s, there is no concrete evidence to that effect. The country contends that it has a right to undertake rocket launches and place satellites in orbit for peaceful purposes. It has been developing earth observation satellite technology for the last few years. North Korea’s current space agenda involves the launching of the Kwangmyungsong (‘Bright Star’) satellites. Till date, it has made four to five attempts towards launching this series of satellites. It is believed that two attempts have been successful so far, including the recent launch of the Kwangmyungsong-4 satellite. Kim Jong-Un has been extremely happy about the recent success and is proposing to launch more satellites in the near future. For North Korea, the success with satellite launches is about national pride and the showcasing of high-profile technological achievements.

    It was earlier reported that North Korea is also involved in developing a communication satellite (probably with a new rocket launcher). The country also appears keen to launch weather satellites to boost agricultural production. Given all this, North Korea’s space agenda appears to be progressive with social relevance. However, the country’s interest in increasing its nuclear weapon arsenal raises suspicion about its intentions. This is simply because North Korea does not yet have a suitable ‘delivery’ vehicle for its nuclear weapons and it is but obvious that it would like to develop ballistic missile capability for that purpose. During the Cold War, the world has witnessed states modifying ICBM technology to develop satellite launchers. China, the erstwhile Soviet Union and the United States were all able to establish their space programmes because of their knowledge of ballistic missile technology. The initial satellite launch vehicles developed by these states were based on designs of sounding rocket launchers and/or on the designs of Medium-Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM)/ICBM/Re-entry Vehicles.

    The North Korean case is different in that it is the reverse of Cold War era rocket development activities. It could be said that it was easier for major powers to modify ballistic missile technology to build satellite launchers whereas the reverse is difficult. Even today, North Korea appears to be quite some distance away from developing ICBMs. The basic difference between a satellite launcher and an ICBM is that the former does not require the mastering of re-entry technology. In other words, a satellite launcher has to successfully carry a payload (satellite) from the ground and place it in orbit, while an ICBM has to carry a payload (say a nuclear bomb) to space (while following its ballistic trajectory) and then re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and deliver the bomb to the pre-designated target on the ground. During the re-entry phase, the rocket has to withstand more than 2000 to 3000° C temperature. For this purpose, there is a need to develop re-entry technology (it involves the development of heat shield, entry vehicle with a specific shape, etc.). There is, however, no available information to corroborate the fact that North Korea is trying to develop this technology. Hence, it would be inaccurate to infer that just because the country has launched a satellite it has automatically become an ICBM power.

    Presently, North Korea uses the Unha launch vehicle for satellite launches. It began its satellite launch attempts with the Paektusan rocket launcher, which was derived from the Taepodong-1 Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) programme. There is not much information available about North Korea’s missile programme. This missile was tested during 1998. Around 2006, the Taepodong-2 missile was tested, although that test was a failure. Subsequently, this programme appears to have shifted focus and got modified as the Unha satellite launcher programme. The range of the Taepodong-2 missile is estimated to be around 9000 km. This brings Europe and parts of the US West coast within the range of this missile. However, this becomes plausible only if North Korea is in a position to develop (and test) a full-fledged ICBM capability in the near future, which, at least at this point in time, is technologically not feasible.

    Against this backdrop, it is but obvious that the US proposal to place an anti-ballistic missile defence system in South Korea is more about power politics than any actual need. There is a proposal for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD) system, which could also act as a deterrent against any potential North Korean nuclear and missile adventurism. Both Russia and China are against the US missile defence deployment proposal. Whether the US is able to deploy such a system in the region depends on South Korea and its ability to withstand pressures in this regard particularly from China.

    North Korea's rocket launch has violated multiple UN resolutions and came within a month of its so-called Hydrogen bomb test. Till date, apart from increasing its military capabilities against the global wish and openly threatening its enemies, North Korea has not caused any physical damage to anyone. In spite of facing stiff sanctions all these years, the country has been able to survive because of covert assistance from China. Also, North Korea is able to operate a clandestine weapons market for outside customers to mobilise financial resources.

    Today, North Korea may not have reached the level of expertise to develop an ICBM indigenously. But, in terms of declaration of intent, it has achieved all that it wants. The country’s persistent attempts to develop satellite launch and missile capability clearly indicate its efforts to bridge the gap between capability and intent. Now, it is up to the rest of world how the North Korean threat is handled.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.