Missile Test, Nuclear Test: Reliving 2006 and 2009

April 9, 2012 7:00 AM

Here we go again: missile test, international condemnation, nuclear test. Sound familiar?

To our knowledge, it was North Korea Tech that broke the story on North Korea’s notification to the International Maritime Organization of its planned missile launch. The details are provided to the IMO so the international organization can warn shipping traffic. According to a second post on North Korea Tech, North Korea subsequently notified the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Telecommunication Union as well.

These steps are part of a well-calibrated effort to underscore the responsible nature of North Korea’s use of outer space. In a KCNA story we posted earlier in our analysis of the missile launch, the news agency pointed out that it “joined the Outer Space Treaty and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. It successfully launched satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 by rocket carrier Unha-2 into the space on April 5, 2009 after going through the procedures concerning international law.”

North Korea’s last rocket launch in 2009 was from the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground in the east of the country and had the rocket flying over Japan en route towards the Pacific Ocean. Although the North Koreans claimed this was a successful launch, it wasn’t;  the New York Times provides a useful overview of the failure of the launch and where the debris landed.

David Wright has now posted a very useful analysis of the trajectory of the North Korean missile launch. By launching south from its Tongch'ang-dong (or Dongchang-ri) launch site on the west coast—quite close to China--North Korea can avoid flying over any large land areas early in flight. But as Wright notes, the flight path has to thread a needle, passing:

  • 120 km west of South Korea at the closest point, providing some interesting opportunities to recover space junk from the Stage 1 splashdown zone;
  • 250 km east of Shanghai, the closest point to China after the launch;
  • 350 km west of Okinawa;
  • 260 km east of Taiwan;
  • 200 km east of the Philippines, which launched a vigorous set of protests over the launch because of its proximity to the anticipated second stage splash zone;
  • At this point in the trajectory, the satellite either enters into orbit or risks coming to earth along the flight path which continues over eastern Indonesia and Australia. Wright notes that the failed South Korean space launch of 2010 dropped debris near Darwin.
  • The worries about the launch center on simple geometry; with a flight trajectory of this length, deviation from the flight path of only a degree or two can result in the missile overflying other territory and coming to earth. Its hard to keep a sense of humor about this, but if you have not seen the classic John Belushi skit on SNL on Skylab, it provides a clear introduction to the issues, both technical and political (on You Tube here).

As is always the case, North Korea’s commitment to international law has only gone so far. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs has a very well-designed website providing an introduction to international space law, including updates on the status of all outer space conventions. The DPRK has signed the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1975 Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. However, it has not signed the 1972 Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects.


The political fallout from the missile test in the US and the region will depend heavily on its success. If it manages to go into orbit, or even has a long flight path before coming to earth, the ballistic missile defense lobby will have a field day. If it comes down in flames, we will have an altogether different story. And if it fizzles, then the regime’s bluster looks much less menacing.

But it is increasingly looking like 2006 and 2009 redux, when missile tests (of different sorts) were followed by UN Security Council actions that were in turn preludes to nuclear tests. More intelligence that the North Koreans are moving ahead on the nuclear front will obviously affect the optics on the missile launch.

Although this news has been lurking for some time, Yonhap revived the nuclear test story on Sunday, setting in train South Korean government comment and the usual charges and countercharges over the politicization of security issues just prior to the South Korean National Assembly elections. The New York Times' balanced Choe Sang-hun provides an overview.

AP photo of the Unha-3 rocket

Still image of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite shown on North Korea State Television



Simon Martin

Very useful, as always, but I think you have "west" and "east" mixed up at start of para five


Simon, Thanks for catching the west/east mix-up. It should be fixed now.

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