TOKYO–North Korea contends its Feb. 7 launch was designed to insert an earth observation satellite into orbit — a claim immediately slammed by the US and its Asian allies as a veiled test to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Picture from North Korean TV of the rocket after launch, on Feb. 7
Picture from North Korean TV of the rocket after launch, on Feb. 7

Since even the US military now concedes the launch inserted an object into a stable low Earth orbit appropriate for such a Space Launch Vehicle or SLV, what distinguishes this seemingly non-military satellite from an ICBM?

Why are the US, South Korea and Japan so unnerved by the potential military applications of the launch and what would having a working ICBM offer Pyongyang vs. its current massive arsenal of proven weapons?

The North boasts plenty of weapons in its existing bag of tricks. Short-range ballistic missiles are simple, lethal options. North Korea has them in the thousands.  Its newest, the No Dong, has a 1,300 km range.

The enhanced Soviet-era Scud missile can reach all of South Korea and most of Japan. It is a single stage, mobile, concealable, crude, inaccurate, cheap weapon. After brief preparation by a small crew, it can deliver a one-ton payload in downtown Tokyo or Seoul. Analysts assume that North Korea has or will soon have a nuke warhead for this missile.

However, more distant targets such as Hawaii or the US West Coast require complex multi-stage ICBMs.  For Pyongyang to do that now, it requires launching such weapons from hard to conceal, very vulnerable fixed launch facilities.

South Korean Defense Ministry retrieved an object believed to be a part of North Korean rocket.
South Korean Defense Ministry retrieved an object believed to be a part of North Korean rocket.

This is where the North is right now and this is where the recent “satellite” launch comes in. Developing an SLV tests much of the technology required for an ICBM, and the North apparently uses the same long-range missile facility and a near-identical rocket, which certainly helps.

But the actual route taken by Pyongyang’s orbital device also raises more questions than it answers. The rocket’s launch trajectory went almost due south, threading west of the Korean peninsula and east of Luzon, and its first stage and fairing or nose cone covering dropped into the Yellow Sea and South China Sea as planned.

Why?  It is the best trajectory to a sun-synchronous orbit over the poles, the optimal orbit for daytime camera exposures. The US launches such surveillance flights south from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The path taken by the satellite also avoids overflying mainland Japan, South Korea, China, or Russia, amounting to a far less useful and politically charged trajectory.

At the same time, space launches require a precise ballet of events, and an SLV launch brings into play most of the elements of an ICBM strike.  Some of the technical challenges that mirror ICBMs include design, development, testing, manufacturing and integration of complex multiple stages. Other hurdles include launch facilities, handling highly dangerous explosive fuels, a protective aerodynamic shroud (‘fairing’), stage separations, autonomous ignition and guidance, accurate navigation placement, and precise separation of the payload or satellite from the final stage.

While not visible, all of these technologies — complex software, and thousands of manufactured devices must be developed, produced, managed and coordinated for a successful launch.

North Korea Scud missile
North Korea Scud missile

Guidance and navigation accuracy can be judged by the final orbit or the distance of the landing of an ICBM’s re-entry vehicle (RV) from its target.  While North Korea claimed it accomplished a near perfect 495 to 500 km circular orbit, the US military reports it as 466 to 501 km, substantially less accurate and enough of a navigation error to add tens of kilometers of error to the 10,000 km range of an ICBM.

Also, any satellite must be able to orient correctly or be rendered useless if tumbling (which was initially reported in this case) and cannot orient its cameras and radio antennae. Orientation is best done autonomously as quickly as possible. This is because often limited life storage batteries deplete and the satellite will die forever if its solar panels do not face sunlight consistently and generate sufficient power.

The toughest part of developing an ICBM (not tested in the North’s recent SLV launch) is the re-entry of the warhead into the atmosphere.  Rather than remain in orbit after separation from a rocket, an ICBM RV warhead coasts along a gravity-dictated ballistic path (hence, “ballistic missile”) and then re-enters the atmosphere at extreme speed.

This maneuver creates tremendous heat. Only certain materials can withstand that heat and not lose their strength and form.  Also, design is critical to lessen heat and minimize its effect. While this extreme environment can be simulated in a well-prepared lab, empirical test data is critical.

But an actual RV test would be a direct, blatant violation of UN sanctions and that might force the military hand of the UN or nations that feel threatened. Hence, North Korea may have shrewdly chosen to go with a satellite launch rather than a more blatant RV test.

Given North Korea’s nuke weapons program, there is also the possibility that it could launch and detonate a nuclear weapon outside the atmosphere above an enemy target. This would create an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) that could destroy sensitive electronics across a broad area.

Imagine the potential destructiveness of a so-called exoatmospheric EMP that could destroy power and communications systems. This could be timed with the delivery of a second nuclear weapon in a container ship that could be sailed into the port of a major city.

Lance Gatling heads Nexial Research, an aerospace consultancy.  He was a career US Army Asia specialist, a US State Department Foreign Service Officer, an aerospace and defense executive, and teaches judo in Tokyo.

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