North Korea is making preparations to launch another Unha rocket from its Sohae Space Launch Station according to a report put out by the New York Times today. In the report, the satellite operator DigitalGlobe is cited as seeing the activity around the site which matches that from before the failed launch from earlier this year. If the report is accurate, this will be the fourth attempted launch of the Unha system, all three prior attempts having failed to achieve their goal to place a satellite in to orbit.
On the world stage, there are several milestones which indicate that a nation is a leader, or influential. North Korea is trying very hard to present themselves as a world leader. Their two nuclear tests having shown the capability for nuclear weapons were sub-par, but still a powerful symbol. Being able to launch a satellite to orbit is, similarly, such a symbol. There are some who would combine these two, assuming that the Unha is an ICBM, but both the estimated and reported performance argues against such a thing. The Unha compares against the US Thor-Able launch vehicle of the 1960’s, which was not an ICBM at all. The Thor-Able was based on the Thor IRBM, intermediate-range ballistic missile. It could not strike another continent, it could only deliver its payload out to 1,500 miles. The Unha, if pressed in to a nuclear delivery system, would be similarly hard pressed to reach targets. Only nations like Japan and China would fall under the umbrella.
North Korea’s policies have isolated them from the world, and this action to produce an orbital launch system does little to help the underlying problem. Instead, people are more concerned of the North Korean rocket failing, again, and raining toxic chemicals and debris on those downrange of the launch site. Should North Korea accomplish its goals of reaching orbit, they would join the league of nations with a successful orbital launch program, adding another name to the list. Launch vehicle failures during early development are common, as the five failures of Brazil’s VLS-1 and the two failures of the South Korean Naro-1 launch systems demonstrate. Even nations with decades of success have failures, with Russia having had a Proton launch vehicle fail just a few months ago.
North Korea’s three failed launch attempts are nothing new nor unusual, and instead are a normal part of the development process for these incredibly complex and delicate machines.