News reports on Tuesday said that U.S. spy satellites had seen a large, new rocket body at a “government research and development facility in Pyongyang,” according to South Korean sources. The rocket body is considerably larger than the Unha launcher that North Korea is expected to use to attempt to launch a satellite later this month.
The press reports said it was unclear whether the object seen was an actual rocket in development or a full-size mockup of a rocket, possibly intended to be shown off as part of the festivities around the centenary of Kim Il-sung’s birth in the middle of the month.
What might be going on?
It’s worth recalling that North Korea has a long history of putting large mockups out in the open where they can be seen by U.S. satellites. For example, in February 1994 U.S. satellites saw two large, multi-stage rocket bodies in North Korea, which the U.S. called the Taepo-dong 1 and 2 (TD-1 & 2) after the name of a city near where they were observed. Reports at the time said that U.S. intelligence considered them to be “hardware mockups,” but there were differing estimates of how serious a development effort these might represent. Some analysts argued that they might be “false prototypes, considering that North Korea displayed them in the open air knowing that they were under the surveillance of U.S. spy satellites.” (Janes Defense Weekly, 12 March 1994, Chosun Ilbo, 20 March 1994)
But Japanese sources were reported as saying they expected both missiles were likely to fly before 1998. (Pacific Stars and Stripes, 11 March 1994)
In fact, the TD-1 was first launched on August 31, 1998 in a failed satellite attempt. The first launch attempt of the TD-2 was not until July 5, 2006—12 and a half years after the first sighting—and it failed only 42 seconds into flight. North Korea had announced a moratorium on missile flight tests following the TD-1 launch in 1998 and continued to observe it until March 2005, when it announced an end to the moratorium in response to a lack of engagement by the Bush administration. The TD-2 launch did not take place until more than a year later, suggesting that development of the missile had not been completed during the moratorium
A second example is the Musudan missile, which was first displayed during a military parade in North Korea in October 2010. While this missile has generated a lot of discussion since then, it has never been flight tested and its status is a matter of debate.
So the new rocket body seen earlier this week may be a larger launcher in the early stage of development, but it could be many years before it is ready for a test. Or it may simply be a mockup intended to look good at a parade in Pyongyang and get the west talking.
Such a rocket would, however, be the logical next step for a country interested in developing either a satellite launcher or a ballistic missile. Our analysis suggests that North Korea’s Unha launcher may be able to place a satellite in orbit, but only a lightweight satellite (the upcoming launch is said to carry a 100-kg satellite) and only at low altitude (about 500 km). While there are some low-mass satellites in orbit, most tend to be many times heavier than this. And the atmospheric drag at 500 km altitude is large enough that it could give a lifetime measured in months rather than years; most satellites currently in low earth orbit (LEO) are at altitudes between 800 and 1,000 km.