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    North Korea Finally Sent a Rocket to Space, and No One Is Totally Sure How

    Written by

    Derek Mead


    South Koreans watch news reports of the launch, via AP/Gawker

    When North Korea announced earlier this month that it was attempting to launch another long range rocket, the world collectively shrugged. While the prospect of an ICBM-equipped North Korea is a huge point of concern, Pyongyang had previously tried to launch a rocket in April that failed miserably, and few expected that they'd made enough developments in that time to find success. But here we are, and North Korea has pulled it off, sending a long-range rocket carrying a satellite "that appeared to achieve orbit," according to North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

    As the first anniversary of his father's death approaches, Kim Jong-un basically just pulled the geopolitical equivalent of the Deal With It GIF.  The NORAD, a joint U.S.-Canada organization that monitors large-scale launches, said that the Unha-3 rocket's first and second stages dropped off into the ocean, which would suggest that its third stage was able to successfully take it into orbit. North Korea has stated that the rocket's payload was a satellite, but because the rocket it more or less similar to an ICBM, just about everyone from Washington to Seoul, Tokyo, and even Beijing is concerned about Pyongyang's new capability.

    For its part, North Korea is pumped on its success. In one sense, it's an impressive achievement that such an impoverished nation was able to send a payload into space, even if the last four attempts were all disasters. And for Kim Jong-un and the rest of Pyongyang's elite, having a huge damn missile to wave around in diplomatic circles might help secure more of that international aid that's North Korea's main lifeline. Of course, it also makes for something for the people to be told to be proud about, as this totally ridiculous North Korean new announcement shows:

    (An interesting aside: North Korean citizens were notified of the April launch, and in a surprise bit of candidness, the government also told the people of its failure, rather than making something up. This time, the only announcement made before the TV bit above was a post on the DPRK state news site, which of course only a few wealthy folks have access to because no one has internet. I guess Pyongyang wanted to be sure they could actually have a successful lift this time.)

    But all that aside, there's a rather pressing question: How did North Korea take a rocket design that failed just 90 seconds into launch and turn it into something that works in only eight months? Just a few days ago, South Korea shared reports that suggested North Korea would delay the launch, which obviously didn't happen. Max Fisher at the Washington Post notes that just about all the experts are stumped at how North Korea pulled off the launch. For how monumentous the launch is in military and political terms, it also appears to be a rather astounding effort in engineering terms. As Robert Beckhusen wrote at Wired, "[R]ocketry is an extraordinarily difficult engineering task. It’s not uncommon for developed countries with advanced rocket programs to fail at it."

    According to rocketry experts, North Korea's program is based on reverse-engineering old Soviet technology, which isn't exactly the most reliable place to start. But for such an impoverished country, it's easier than starting from scratch. On Monday, David Wright at All Things Nuclear wrote a an excellent post explaining why it didn't seem realistic for North Korea to finish engineering a working rocket in just eight months, noting that the U.S. and Japan were still crunching telemetry data to figure out why the April rocket failed at least into October. If it took those two countries at least that long to figure out what went wrong, Wright argues, then a December launch seemed too soon to be realistic.

    But Wright also notes that the April launch, while catastrophic, may not have been indicative of impossibly-massive engineering flaws. That rocket failed during its first stage burn, and there may have been an error in how the four engines of the first stage ignited. North Korea has a bevy of rocket technology, as this great AP story explains, but the Unha-3 rocket design is more complicated than any of them, and an imbalance between engines–or if one of the four didn't fully burn–then the April rocket was doomed from the start.

    Still, dealing with an issue with ignition of the first stage is a big deal, but it may not have been an inherent flaw, like if there was an issue with the rocket's guidance system. And there's another issue at play: Before yesterday, North Korea had only launched four rockets of this size in a decade and a half, and all were failures. That's not a lot of practice for rocket launching, and perhaps April's disaster wasn't due to a faulty design but rather user error. At the very least, knowing that someone had messed up in April may have given the country the confidence to launch again so quickly.

    Of course, for everyone that isn't North Korea, the launch is a huge cause for concern. Nuclear North Korea causes enough diplomatic stress as it is, and as officials worldwide have already noted, the launch is yet another provocation from a country that's turned saber rattling into a national pastime. It also comes as South Korea has indicated that it wants to extend an olive branch towards its neighbors, which puts even more pressure on the Obama administration to figure out some sort of solution.

    Meanwhile, often forgotten in discussions about North Korea is that Japan is assuredly no fan of the country, and that it had previously promised to to destroy the rocket if it passed over Japanese soil with the help of its highly-developed missile defense system. That didn't happen this time, but it's a sign of just how tense the rocket situation is getting. Another sign is that Russia and even China, which is one of the only countries that's relatively friendly with North Korea, have roundly condemned the launch. 

    The fallout from this launch (okay, I know that's not the best word) hasn't been fully realized yet, but there's no way that North Korea is going to escape without some sort of international response. Right now, it still seems that just about everyone is still surprised that Pyongyang pulled it off. Rest assured though, North Korea being equipped with long-range rockets has fundamentally changed the political and strategic equation in East Asia. And even if no one is quite sure yet how they did it, expect to be hearing about North Korea's burgeoning rocket program for a long time to come.

    Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead