A South Korean official checks part of the North Korean rocket retrieved from the ocean. Image: Reuters
The North Korean rocket story keeps on going: First it became clear that the satellite sent into orbit is basically dead, even if it's orbiting normally. Nonetheless, Kim Jong-un was notably happy with the launch, and according to North Korean state media, held a celebratory dinner for 101 of the engineers and scientists who helped develop the successful rocket, who were all also awarded a "hero's title," a high honor from Pyongyang.
But there's been one nagging question from the very beginning: When the last attempt in April failed miserably, how did the country pull off a successful lift so quickly? So far, it's become apparent that North Korea basically reverse-engineered former Soviet tech into a working hodge-podge of rocket tech, and it also seems like the disaster in April wasn't due to the rocket design being as far from completion as previously thought. But here's another interesting wrinkle: South Korean authorities fished bits of the rocket out of the ocean, and it looks like North Korea may have had help from Iran.
For an oxidizer, North Korea used red fuming nitric acid, commonly used as rocket propellant in old Soviet-built Scud missiles, as well as in Iranian and North Korean missiles, the official said. Most space-program rockets use liquid oxygen as an oxidizer, he said. Unlike liquid oxygen, which must be kept extremely cold, red fuming nitric acid can be stored at room temperature, which makes it a convenient propellant for missiles, [a senior military intelligence official] said.
The design of the oxidizer tank also suggested an “Iran connection” in North Korea’s rocket program, he said.
Officials found the welding on the oxidizer tank to be “crude,” “uneven” and “done by hand.” They also found some foreign-made components, despite North Korea’s claim that its rocket was “indigenously produced 100 percent.” But they said it signaled a great technological advance for North Korea to launch a three-stage rocket successfully and put an object into orbit. All of North Korea’s previous rocket tests had failed to reach orbit, according to Western officials.
The North Korea-Iran connection shouldn't come as a surprise, as the two countries have been reported to be cooperating on nuclear missile designs since as least 2011. And, really, when almost every country on the planet is against either of them having long-range missile platforms, it's not like they have many other options to turn to. But while Iran receives a lot of attention–rightfully so, of course–for trying to develop a nuclear program, North Korea is already believed to have nuclear devices, and South Korean officials are already saying that the US could be within range. Now, many experts would likely consider Iran more of a threat due to the politics of the region, North Korea's nascent rocket program just put it back in the security spotlight.