North Korea fired off a long-range rocket on April 5, 2009. Through various channels, the international community had been seeking to persuade North Korea to refrain from launching a rocket, expressing strong concerns. But the communist nation eventually pressed ahead with its plan. After the launch, North Korea claimed the rocket was not a ballistic missile but the Eunha-2 space launch vehicle carrying the country’s communication satellite Gwangmyeongseong-2 into orbit. The international community later leaned toward the North’s assertion. But worries about the North’s ballistic missile development still linger, even if the launched rocket was truly carrying a communication satellite. On a more skeptical note, speculation was rampant that it was a ballistic missile test in disguise of a communication satellite launch.
In an apparently transparent move, North Korea informed related international organizations of its planned rocket launch. Earlier, the North joined treaties on space exploration, such as the Outer Space Treaty and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. The North’s moves show a stark contrast to its previous practice of undeclared launches, including the 1998 launch of a Taepodong-1, which the North claimed the Gwangmyeongseong-1 satellite, and the unsuccessful 2006 launch of a long-range missile that the outside world considered a Taepodong-2.
Chronology of Gwangmyeongseong-2 Launch
- Mid-January : Spy satellites detect North Korea’s preparations for a rocket launch
- February 24 : A spokesman for the North Korean Space Technology Commission said in a statement that preparations were fully underway for a satellite launch.
- March 9 : Regarding the possibility of shooting down the North’s rocket, a spokesman for the General Staff of the North Korean People’s Army threatened to take the strongest, immediate military action against any attempt to thwart its satellite.
- March 12 : The North’s Korean Central News Agency reports that the nation informed the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization of its launch date (between April 4 and 8) and the expected coordinates of the rocket.
- March 24 : “If the U.N. Security Council takes issue with North Korea’s rocket launch, it means the nullification of the September 19th joint statement and the breakdown of the six-party nuclear talks,” a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said. North Korea’s rocket is mounted onto a launch pad covered up by a crane.
- March 28 : The top of the rocket is revealed.
- April 1 : North Korea begins fueling the rocket positioned on a launch pad.
- April 4 : The Korean Central News Agency reports on the nation’s imminent satellite launch, quoting the announcement from the Korea Space Technology Commission.
- April 5 : Around 11:30 a.m., North Korea fires a rocket. (North Korea claims 11:20 a.m.) “Communication satellite Gwangmyeongseong-2 was successfully put into orbit,” the Korean Central News Agency reports. (around 3:28 p.m.)
The rocket launch was carried out at the satellite launching ground in Musudan-ri in Hwadae County, North Hamgyeong Province. North Korea claims it launched a satellite at 11:20 a.m., but the launch was observed 15 seconds past 11:30 a.m. Initial calculation shows that the first booster of the rocket fell into the East Sea and the second booster flew 3,100 kilometers from the launching site. Some analyzed that the rocket’s second and third stages failed to separate, forcing the rocket to fly shorter than 3,600 kilometers, a target distance that had been projected by North Korea.
Following the launch, some argued the launched rocket was a missile. As time went by, however, most agreed that it was carrying a communication satellite, as North Korea had claimed. The biggest concern was whether the rocket’s second and third stages separated, since that would be the key to gauging the capability of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At first, it had been concluded that the second and third stages failed to separate and fell into the Pacific Ocean together. But some others also maintained that the separation was successful and that the rocket entered the earth’s orbit temporarily, with the rocket traveling 3,900 kilometers, 800 kilometers more than the earlier projection. Some also say it’s nearly certain that North Korea failed to put its satellite into orbit but that the nation has clearly demonstrated its long-range rocket capability.
Rocket and ICBM Capability
The Taepodong-1 North Korea fired in 1998 flew more than 1,600 kilometers. The Taepodong-2 in 2006 fell into the sea shortly after its launch, rendering the test a failure. In 2009, the rocket North Korea claims to be the Eunha-2 space launch vehicle is estimated to have traveled 3,100-3,900 kilometers before falling. Therefore, the North succeeded in extending range significantly. Even if the rocket was carrying a communication satellite, North Korea has proved its ICBM capability, given that the same technology is used for launching satellites and intercontinental ballistic missiles.