SEOUL, South Korea >> Analysts sifting through information on North Korea’s failed rocket launch say it suggests Pyongyang has learned little about spaceflight since its last flubbed attempt three years ago, and that it’s a long way from being able to threaten the United States with a long-range missile.
The experts also said an apparently new missile North Korea showed off at a military parade Sunday did not seem to present any major leaps forward. Some were more interested in the truck it was carried on.
North Korea had touted the Unha-3 rocket that broke apart Friday as its most ambitious effort yet to join the exclusive club of space-faring nations. It said the rocket carried an Earth observation satellite, though many nations say the launch was a cover for testing long-range missile technology.
Failure is a fact of life in rocket programs. The U.S., Soviet and Chinese programs all had their share of setbacks, and Pyongyang’s rival, economically and technologically advanced South Korea, has yet to succeed in launching its own rockets, though it has tried twice.
Analysts said Friday’s failure, which appeared to come in the rocket’s first stage, suggests that North Korea is not learning much from its mistakes. Its Unha rocket shots in 1998, 2006 and 2009 are all believed to have ended in failure.
“An obvious conclusion is they have a major reliability problem,” said Neil Hansen, of the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. “This is the second Unha first stage that malfunctioned early in flight, after the July 4, 2006, launch — and this is Unha-3. The Unha technology for at least the first stage appears frozen to the early 2000s.”
Hansen said the biggest difference between the rocket launched in 2009 and the one that failed last week was “the paint that said 3 on the rocket body.”
The launch, intended to be an inspiration for its people and a warning to its enemies, was a huge embarrassment for North Korea’s new leadership.
Pyongyang made the unusual admission that the rocket failed — it still claims launches in 1998 and 2009 put satellites in orbit though independent space experts disagree. North Korea says its scientists are looking into the cause, but has yet to provide further details or reveal photos or video of the launch.
Analysts are largely working off flight details announced by the U.S. military and by photos of the rocket and the launch facility taken by journalists beforehand. Efforts by South Korea’s navy to recover debris from the launch have not panned out.
The three-stage rocket was seen from the start by the United States, the U.N. and others as a cover for testing advanced ballistic missile technologies, since the two are similar and North Korea is suspected to be working on missiles of increasingly greater range and efficiency.
That is of particular concern to Washington because North Korea is believed to have at least a crude nuclear weapons program, and if it can develop a reliable intercontinental ballistic missile and a nuclear bomb small enough to use as a payload, it could be a threat to U.S. security.
Sunday’s failure suggests that threat is a long way off.
“The fact this failed so early calls into question how good its technology is,” said David Wright, a missile expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Rockets are very complicated and any one of dozens of things can go wrong and cause failure, so it isn’t good enough just to get pieces to work. You need the whole system to work. North Korea clearly isn’t there yet.”
Still, North Korea hasn’t stood completely still.
Hansen noted that the preparations to get the rocket assembled and fueled on the new launch facility — which South Korean officials say cost $450 million to build — went smoothly and were completed quickly, which may demonstrate increased expertise, at least on the ground.
North Korea has announced it will continue to build rockets over the next five years, and Hansen said the gantry at the new site backs up that claim because it was built for a bigger rocket than the Unha-3.
For months before the launch, military analysts had speculated that this newer, bigger rocket might be put on display at the military parade Sunday, which was the culmination of two weeks of celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, spoke publicly for the first time just before the parade, and stressed that he will continue to make the military his “first, second and third” priority.
Although the parade concluded with what appeared to be a new missile, experts say that wasn’t very impressive either.
“It appears to be much too small to be an ICBM,” said Wright, of the UCS. “And it looks like an odd configuration, so it’s not clear what it says about North Korea’s design capability. We may know more soon.”
Other experts said they were also at a loss over the new missile, which was painted in camouflage green and displayed at the very end of the parade, suggesting it was the weapon North Korea wanted to show off most.
Of more interest, perhaps, was the vehicle that carried the missile.
With 16 wheels, it was the biggest yet displayed by the North. That’s important because such vehicles can transport missiles for launch in different sites, giving them an element of mobility that makes them harder to find and destroy. The bigger the vehicle, the larger the missile it can transport.
Ted Parsons, of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, said the one used Sunday strongly resembles vehicles designed by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation. Hansen said there are also similarities to Russian or Belarus vehicles. A country that provided such technology would be violating U.N. sanctions, though it may be hard to prove how or from whom North Korea got them.
Pyongyang could be withholding a missile development for later: Another major military parade is planned April 25. But Seung-joo Baek, of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul, said he expects no surprises.
“We already know they have missiles,” he said. “After its latest failure, North Korea is going to have to face whether it wants to continue developing rockets or seek better relations with its neighbors.”