Missile launch by North Korea a failure

Rockets: They’ve been around for about 70 years. But just because they’re senior citizens doesn’t mean they’re technologically decrepit. As North Korea’s latest failed rocket test shows, launching a rocket into space is still, well, rocket science. Korea’s lame attempt to launch a rocket this past Friday drew condemnation from the White House, with press secretary Jay Carney saying in a statement that the “provocative action threatens regional security, violates international law and contravenes its own recent commitments.”

North Korea’s much-touted satellite launch ended in a nearly $1 billion failure, bringing humiliation to the country’s new young leader and condemnation from a host of nations. The United Nations Security Council deplored the launch but stopped short of imposing new penalties in response.

The rocket’s disintegration Friday over the Yellow Sea brought a rare public acknowledgment of failure from Pyongyang, which had hailed the launch as a show of strength amid North Korea’s persistent economic hardship. For the 20-something Kim Jong Un it was to have been a highlight of the celebratory events surrounding his ascension to top political power.

It was timed to coincide with the country’s biggest holiday in decades, the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, the young leader’s grandfather. The United States and South Korea declared the early morning launch a failure minutes after the rocket shot out from the North’s west coast. North Korea acknowledged its demise four hours later in an announcement broadcast on state TV, saying the satellite the rocket was carrying did not enter orbit.

“I guess the late founder of North Korea is disappointed. His birthday toy won’t arrive on time,” a senior U.S. official emails, along with a request to keep his name out of his jokes. “In fact, it won’t arrive at all. And if it did, some major reassembly would be required.” In fairness, it’s not just North Korea. The list of countries to have successfully launched a satellite into space is in the single digits.

Still, North Korea has some specific disadvantages. “Not only are they short on money, but also expertise. Developing this technology requires expertise across a range of fields, from fluid dynamics to metallurgy to materials science to flight dynamics,” says Brian Weeden, a former officer with the U.S. Air Force Space Command. “Countries that have been successful in this area all have extensive science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs to develop people with expertise in those fields.”

In particular, North Korea’s short-range missile technology is based on work the Soviets did with their own rockets. But that’s really difficult to scale up — as Pyongyang seems not to have figured out. Of course, all bets are off if the North Koreans decide a modified intercontinental ballistic missile is too hard and opt to go shopping. On the other hand, North Korea seems to like to export its missile technology.
Documents revealed by WikiLeaks indicated that North Korea had passed on its missiles to Iran. That may not actually be true. But judging from North Korea’s unbroken streak of failed launches, if Pyongyang really is sending missiles to Iran, that’s a two-fer for Washington.