Although United States has dismissed North Korea’s insistence that its space program is for peaceful purposes as baloney, technically speaking, Pyongyang’s program might be what it claims it to be.

North Korea's Space Program Might Not Be An Eyewash

On October 4, 1957, Soviet Union sent shockwaves around the globe by launching the first satellite into orbit which was a modified R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). For many observers, the message was clear – Sputnik can deliver hydrogen bombs to American cities. However, the message was not sent once. The first 96 Soviet satellite launches were conducted through modified ICBMs. That was before Russian engineers started designing rockets designed specifically for space missions.

China on the other hand, has still not chosen to field a space launch vehicle (SLV) that isn’t also a ballistic missile.

So for obvious reasons when North Korea launched its first satellite, the Unha-3 on December 12, 2012, most of the observers took it as a message that Pyongyang had the capability to bomb cities at will. And it is safe to say that Pyongyang can actually pull it off if it wanted too. However, the jury is still out on the exact purpose of the Unha-3. Some feel that this is an ICBM hiding behind the veil of an SLV or and SLV that will someday be modified into a missile. And although North Korea claims this technology for peaceful space exploration, we can be forgiven for our feelings of mistrust.

North Korea’s creation of UNHA-3: An inefficient technology

However, there are reasons why the same rocket can be used to achieve both ambitions. The most important requirement for an ICBM is to accelerate a hydrogen-bomb-sized payload to around 16,000 miles per hour just above the atmosphere and aimed at around 20 degrees above the horizon. In order to launch a satellite, you need to be a little bit higher and fly horizontally at a speed of around 18,000 miles per hour. Moreover, there is no rationale to develop a second rocket if your satellites are not larger than your bombs.

However, if the creation of Unha-3 was due to ulterior motives, those motives might never pay off. The second and third stage engines do not have enough thrust to efficiently deliver warheads. An armed Unha could deliver roughly 800 kilograms of payload to Washington. The North Koreans have enough resources to make a nuclear warhead like this but it would be a close call.

Knowing that North Korea has upper-stage engines, it is likely that they can deliver larger payloads which will allow bigger and deadlier warheads and more decoys to bypass US missile defences and keep in touch with a more robust and effective system.

However, when it comes to overall efficiency in the event of war, Unha might not be able to help Pyongyang achieve its targets. It is too heavy and cumbersome and is way too big for any type of mobile transporter and can only be launched from fixed sites. Also, the fact that the highly corrosive liquid propellants require hours of pre-launch preparations means that it is a very week weapon.

In times of crisis, North Korean launch sites will be watched very closely and if there is any indication that an ICBM is being prepared for a launch, a pre-emptive strike might take effective measures to neutralize the situation.

The Unha-3 is a lot similar to the old Soviet R-7 which was a rather dud ICBM. After deploying ten of those, USSR retired it in less than ten years. Today, it is used as a space launch vehicle.

Just like USSR, North Korea could put the Unha-3 into limited service as an ICBM until they are able to use something much efficient. And, it appears they are close to building something better. The KN-08 missiles have twice paraded through the capital and are the type of ICBMs that North Korea targets to build. It is small enough in size to be transported but for now, its performance levels are limited. However, as opposed to Unha-3, KN-08 seems to have been designed to launch satellites and not warheads.

North Korea has not always been able to cleanly separate its ICBMs from one stage to ignite another. However, with the Unha, after a lot of previous failed attempts, they succeeded. Through Unha, North Koreans have learned a lot. From using heavy steel tanks and structure in earlier models, they used lighter aluminium alloys in the Unha. In the course of developing Unha, North Korea has honed its ICBM making skills.

Work is currently being done on the 2015 Unha but it is the 2020 KN-08 that will be a unique proposition and will serve as a great indicator of how far Pyongyang has come in terms of manufacturing an efficient ICBM.

A larger rocket will help North Korea launch a satellite into the orbit but it might not be able to help it build smaller, efficient and mobile ICBMs.

But there is one particular area where North Korea’s ICBM program will really be given a leg up.

Unlike a satellite, an ICBM warhead needs to come down and go up. Fortunately or unfortunately, North Korea is still not able to construct a re-entry vehicle that can survive at least half the speed an ICBM requires.

And if that were to happen, it will be a very alarming situation. Having an SLV will provide North Korea with an opportunity to test a re-entry vehicle without letting the world know that it is a part of a missile.

Warning signs

By using Unha rockets to launch satellites while also deploying Unha-derived missiles in silos will indicate that North Korea is going to keep a hold of its Unha-based ICBM in service and keep on improving it. North Korea can also conduct high-speed re-entry vehicle tests during satellite launches and the data retrieved from these test can then be added to a long-range missile program – something that cannot be kept as a secret for long.

However, if North Korea is saying that its program is strictly for launching satellites, it is probably true. However, the world would want to know what type of satellites it intends to send to the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO). Indeed, there could be military dimensions to Pyongyang’s space  program but only time will tell if their ICBM program is every going to become a real threat to the US and its allies.