Courcy's Future Threats - 8 January 2013

North Korea: rocket launch hits the superfecta

North Korea’s launch of a rocket to put a satellite in orbit last month has many people worried. In fact, the launch represents four distinct areas of concern, all of which must be seriously considered: the testing of long-range missile technology; the reason the precise timing of the launch took the US and South Korea by surprise; the potential for harm from an out of control satellite; and the possibility of another North Korean nuclear test.

On 12 December North Korea succeeded, after 14 years of trying, in putting an object in orbit. The pariah nation’s space programme has been so marked by failure that most observers would only have given, at best, even odds the launch would be successful, which in itself demonstrated an additional threat to North Korea’s immediate neighbours: if the rocket had failed debris could have come down anywhere.

Missile technology

Under United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions 1718 and 1874 North Korea must not conduct launches using ballistic missile technology. Experts said the three-stage rocket used by North Korea on 12 December was indeed similar in design to a model capable of carrying a nuclear-tipped warhead as far as the US West Coast (if North Korea were able to develop the other technologies necessary).

South Korea and Japan, North Korea’s closest neighbours, both reacted to the launch by calling emergency security meetings.

UNSC resolution 1718, adopted on 14 October 2006, laid sanctions against North Korea after its nuclear weapon test earlier that month. One sanction it imposed was that North Korea cease all testing and development for its ballistic missile programme. Resolution 1874, adopted on 12 June 2009, set out further sanctions on North Korea after its second test of a nuclear weapon the previous month. It repeats many of the same prohibitions as resolution 1718, including a demand that North Korea not conduct any launch using ballistic missile technology.

North Korea’s official position is that it is simply exercising its right to peaceful exploration and use of outer space in accordance with the rights given to all nations under Articles I and III of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which it is a party. This position, however, is selective in which parts of international law, and the rights under them, should apply to the state. The articles read:

  • Article I paragraph II

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

  • Article III

States Parties to the Treaty shall carry on activities in the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding.

UNSC resolutions are considered binding international law for all UN member states, including North Korea. Breaching these resolutions puts North Korea in contravention of the terms of the 1967 treaty, to wit “in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations”.

However, as long as China continues to shield North Korea from the wrath of the rest of the Security Council, it is unlikely that any new sanctions will be imposed, beyond the issuing of stern rhetoric. Further sanctions would also represent a gamble on the part of the UNSC, and risks a robust response from North Korea (see below).

Defenders of North Korea’s right to develop a peaceful space programme point out that the launch and flight profiles of a satellite launch and a missile launch are different. This is absolutely true. One is designed to lift an object into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), and provide it with the appropriate energy to keep it there, allowing it to fall into a stable orbital trajectory; the other is to lift an object into space, often beyond LEO, and bring it down again to a predetermined point. These two profiles require different fuel, trajectory calculations and stress etc, and not all the data from testing one will be useful for the other. North Korea could not possibly hope to gain all the knowledge it needs for a missile launch by testing a satellite delivery vehicle.

However, some of the telemetry is useful, and many of the forces acting on the launch vehicles at various points are similar. Experimental engineers and physicists will know that not every single part of a test has to work for elements of it to be considered successful. Transferable lessons can be learnt from different tests. Important data will have been gathered from the latest launch on rocket motors, high strength-to-weight fuselages, and guidance software.

It is also the case that launching a satellite gives North Korea something to point to, to demonstrate absolutely that its intentions are peaceful. Not even China could pretend otherwise if the state started blatantly launching ballistic missiles.

A further important point to remember is that North Korea’s intention with these launches is not only to provide useful data for its missile technologies. The government of the impoverished nation looks on jealously at the technological leaps and bounds being made by other countries, and is desperate to catch up. A significant part of the motivation for December’s launch genuinely was to get a satellite into orbit, and to save face after the failed launch in April. Unfortunately, although the payload made it into orbit, that appears to be the only point of success (see below).

  • It would be unwise to pour too much scorn on North Korea’s attempts. It is not the first nation to have a shaky start to its space programme. In 1957 the running joke about the US’s attempts to keep up with Russia’s programme was: Vanguard – a typical government employee. It won’t work and you can’t fire it.

Will they or won’t they? They won’t. Darn, they have.

That North Korea was planning to launch a rocket was not a secret to anyone. It was publically announced that the launch would take place, the launch window was declared, and the predicted drop-zones for rocket debris were identified and the relevant authorities and countries notified; so far, so good.

Onlookers, particularly the US and South Korea, analysed the intelligence available to them to determine exactly what stage North Korea was at, whether or not they appeared to be working to fix any last minute technical problems, and estimate exactly when the launch would take place. Unfortunately, North Korea was wise to their tactics, and caught them by surprise.

The launch window was quite long: 3 December – 22 December. In mid-November US spy satellites spotted rocket components being transported from a missile plant near Pyongyang to the Tongchang-ri launch site, and on 8 December US and South Korean satellites detected a train carrying what appeared to be missile components from the missile plant to the launch pad. On 9 December, however, North Korea announced that it had encountered a technical glitch and may have to extend the window to 29 December.

Analysis of previous launches, and more importantly delayed launches, by North Korea lured intelligence agencies into the belief that the launch may not take place within that window at all, and most likely would be delayed until early 2013. Agencies instead directed their attention to diagnosing what problems might have developed with the rocket. When satellite images captured on the morning of 11 December showed signs of parts of the rocket being dismantled it confirmed the belief that there would be no launch that side of New Year.

However, further images captured by a US satellite taken on the afternoon of the eleventh showed the rocket fully assembled and on the launch pad.

Speaking to the press in the US on condition of anonymity, a military source conceded “There is a strong chance that North Korea knew what time South Korean and US spy satellites would fly over the launch pad and leaked information to throw us off.”

The US’s KH-12 spy satellite, which tracks movements in North Korea, is powerful enough to spot a 15 cm object from 300 to 500 km in the air, but it does not remain stationary over the country and cannot provide 24-hour surveillance. This means that North Korea could have prepared for the launch when the spy satellites were not flying over it and pretended to be replacing components or fixing a major flaw in the rocket when they were.

What is most surprising is that agencies did not seem prepared for this tactic. It is surprising because it is not the first time North Korea has pulled off a similar trick. In December 2011 US and South Korean intelligence agencies were oblivious to Kim Jong-il’s death until the official announcement two days after the event. “There is a chance of misjudgment as long as we rely on communication intercepts and satellite images in analysing North Korean movements,” said the military source. “We need to bolster human intelligence capabilities.”

North Korea has learnt how to manipulate some of the intelligence gleaned by its opponents. This has important implications: the intelligence gathered by the US and its allies cannot be considered as accurate as was previously believed, which must be accounted for in risk assessments; and new sources of information must be nurtured, which is not a quick process.

Obviously, satellite imagery and communication intercepts are not the only sources available to intelligence agencies, but they are an important feed into the overall assessment, and disinformation inserted there could at the very least cause confusion when compared to other sources.

Out of control

North Korea achieved putting a satellite in orbit, but that is apparently the end of the success. Analysis is still ongoing, but it appears that the object has an unstable trajectory and is tumbling out of control. One possibility is that its orbit is decaying and it could return to Earth. If this were to happen much of the satellite would burn up on re-entry, and there is a good chance that the remaining debris would miss any populated areas (there is a 71% chance it would splash down in the ocean). But a low probability of harm is not the same is not the same as zero possibility. Agencies will be watching the object closely in case it looks like coming down from space.

Another risk, and one that has governments and companies more concerned than an un-planned de-orbit, is that the satellite could collide with another object in space.

The LEO, where the majority of space craft are found, is becoming increasingly congested. It is predicted that the LEO could soon fall victim to a cycle of self-promulgation of space junk, known as the Kessler Syndrome, making space inaccessible. A collision between North Korea’s rogue satellite and another craft would seriously exacerbate this problem. Debris in space is already causing problems, with the astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) required to retreat periodically to emergency escape craft as the station is forced to manoeuvre to avoid objects that could cause catastrophic damage if they struck the ISS, as happened in March 2012.

There are precedents which show exactly what happens when man-made objects disintegrate in the LEO. China’s destruction of its own FY-1C satellite in 2007, and the hyper-velocity collision between America’s Iridium 33 communications satellite and the defunct Russian satellite Kosmos-2251 in 2009, led to a massive increase in the amount of debris in the LEO. The limit of our tracking technology is such that at present only pieces of debris larger than 1cm across can be monitored. The 2007 incident alone created 150,000 pieces of trackable debris, and an unknown amount of debris that cannot be monitored. The fact that pieces of debris are small does not mean they are not dangerous. Spacecraft, including other satellites, are only lightly shielded to minimise the weight of the payload for launch, and pieces of debris typically plunge through space at a rate of 12km/s.

To understand the full implications for the amount of space debris of a collision involving the North Korean satellite, it is worth noting that NASA estimates that the 2007 and 2009 incidents account for a third of the debris currently in orbit.

The degree to which the developed world relies on space technology is truly staggering. Satellites are used to facilitate our travel, communication, entertainment, and even the provision of our electricity supply. Satellites are extremely expensive, and space insurance is a burgeoning industry. It is not in anyone’s interest to have a rogue satellite tumbling out of control through the LEO.

  • A possible embarrassment

In our November 2012 issue of Courcy’s Future Threats we discussed the various options on the table for attempting to clean up the LEO, and forcibly de-orbit larger pieces of debris in a controlled manner; some of these technologies are relatively close to production and could be a reality within a decade or so. If another country, or for that matter a private company, judged that the satellite launched in December was a danger to other space users and decided to forcibly de-orbit it, it could be a serious embarrassment to North Korea.

Nuclear issues

A significant worry for the international community as a whole is that North Korea is unlikely to have conducted its satellite launch without drawing up an action plan in case it attracted new sanctions. The state’s bargaining chip, as ever, is that it could conduct another nuclear test.

Satellite photos show that North Korea may indeed be preparing its nuclear test facility for future use (although we have already discussed the fact that this particular intelligence source is open to manipulation).

Analysis of recent images appear to show that North Korea has repaired flood damage at its test facility and could conduct a quick atomic explosion if it chose, though water still streaming out of a test tunnel may cause problems.

Precedent would seem to be on the side of an imminent nuclear test should sanctions be forthcoming. Pyongyang carried out each of its 2006 and 2009 tests just weeks after receiving UNSC condemnation and sanctions for conducting long-range rocket launches similar to the one on 12 December.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry hinted on the day of the rocket launch that a new nuclear test remained an option, although nothing was said that committed it to that course of action. The spokesman told state media that a hostile US response to the failed April launch had forced Pyongyang “to re-examine the nuclear issue as a whole.”

This, too, is a common North Korean tactic, so it can allege that the hated West is manipulating its words in the press if it is accused of planning a test; Pyongyang can go ahead and show strength by conducting a test, or merely emphasise its right to construct a peaceful nuclear programme for power generation. It may appear transparent to onlookers but this rhetoric is chiefly aimed at the domestic audience, which has no access to other points of view.

If a nuclear test is conducted, an important issue will be what type of device is used. Both previous tests used plutonium as the fissile material. If Pyongyang wanted to construct a small enough warhead to attach to a long-range missile using plutonium, a recent paper by Frank Pabian of Los Alamos and Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University suggests at least one more test would be required before it could have any confidence in the design.

North Korea’s small plutonium stockpile is sufficient for four to eight bombs, they wrote, but it may be willing to sacrifice some if it can augment information from the previous tests.

However, Pabian and Hecker predicted that Pyongyang may simultaneously test both plutonium and highly enriched uranium devices.

A uranium test would be of even greater concern than a plutonium test, as it would confirm that North Korea, which would need months to restart its shuttered plutonium reactor, has an alternative source of fissile material based on uranium enrichment. North Korea unveiled a previously secret uranium enrichment plant in November 2010.

A complex assessment

Assessing the likelihood of a robust response to criticism by North Korea is particularly difficult on this occasion. On the one hand, Kim Jong-un has appeared unusually conciliatory. In the first televised New Year address by a North Korean head of state in 19 years, the young leader called for the end of “confrontation between the north and the south” of the Korean peninsula. This suggests he is keen to start the process of bringing the pariah state in from the cold, and restart the suspended six-nation nuclear talks.

On the other hand, Kim Jong-un is facing some trying times domestically and desperately needs to appear strong in the eyes of North Korea’s military. He may need to engage in a certain amount of posturing to shore up his position and maintain the support of his generals.

The key judgment to make is how much of what the leadership does is for the consumption of its domestic audience, and how much is posturing aimed at its international peers. Missile launches, like nuclear tests, are useful to Pyongyang because they fulfil both requirements.

Some things are certain, however. Whether the launch in December is viewed as a genuine satellite launch or as a disguised test of long-range missile technology for delivering a warhead it remains true that useful data has been gathered for both purposes, putting North Korea one step closer to constructing a viable weapons system.

The over-reliance of North Korea’s opponents on satellite technology, either for photos (IMINT) or communication intercept (SIGINT), has been demonstrated, and must be addressed. Pyongyang now knows it can successfully manipulate this intelligence source and will continue to do so as long as it is tactically useful.

North Korea’s satellite, by all available accounts, is out of control. It must be considered a threat to other objects in the LEO. If it is involved in a collision, the resulting debris will create an even bigger hazard than a single rogue satellite.

If Kim Jong-un, only in his twenties, determines that the launch alone was not enough to strengthen his position in the eyes of the military, more posturing may be necessary, and the ultimate expression of this would be a further nuclear test. No matter what conciliatory stance the young leader wishes to adopt he has to prioritise his domestic position. If robust rhetoric leaves the UNSC states no choice but to call for further sanctions, Kim may also be left no choice but to respond with another high profile test of its nuclear technology.


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