Accessibility links

Breaking News

North Korea Learns From Rocket Launch Failure

North Korea claims its rocket launch Sunday put a satellite into orbit. The U.S. says the satellite launch was really a cover for Pyongyang's ballistic missile program. Whichever it was, most experts say it was pretty much a failure. But Pyongyang may still have gotten something out of the widely condemned launch.

The Taepodong-2 rocket fired Sunday apparently did not boost a satellite into space, despite North Korea's claims to the contrary, because no satellite has been detected by numerous space tracking systems. As for the rocket itself, only the first stage appears to have worked. The other two stages fell into the ocean, taking the payload with them.

It was the third failure in a row, mirroring previous unsuccessful attempts by North Korea to launch a satellite in 1998 and 2006.

Still, the Sunday launch did go farther and stay up longer than the two previous attempts. Joseph Bermudez, North Korea analyst for Jane's Defense Weekly, says North Korean scientists can still learn from their mistakes.

"If the telemetry from the launch vehicle was good and the North Koreans were receiving data, there is a possibility that this could be of benefit to them still, despite the overall failure, in that they could possibly isolate the cause of their repeated failures," he said.

David Wright, a physicist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says assessing the overall success or failure of the North Korean launch depends on what Pyongyang's real goals were.

"If their goal was to put a satellite in orbit and sort of get prestige for that, it clearly was a failure. If their goal was to show that they have the capability to fire a long-range missile, that was a failure but not quite as big a failure because they probably did learn something about the first [rocket] stage. If their goal was to capture the world's attention and get the Obama administration to start paying attention to them, my guess is that that was a success," he said.

Rodger Baker, senior Far East analyst for the private intelligence firm Stratfor, points out something different about this launch: it was publicized internally in North Korea and could be interpreted as demonstrating the country's defiance to the world ahead of the April 9 convocation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK)'s rubber-stamp Supreme People's Assembly (SPA).

"This is the first launch that North Korea has played up in the domestic media ahead of the launch. And this was intended to be a very strong signal to the North Korean people that despite international condemnation and international isolation, North Korea is - at least from their point of view - a powerful and capable nation that doesn't need to worry about what other people tell it," he said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is quoted as expressing great satisfaction with what he claimed to be a successful satellite launch.

Experts say the technologies to launch a satellite or a ballistic missile are virtually identical. The U.S. has been worried that North Korea will not only develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, but that it would pass that technology on to other countries, including Iran.

But Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright was dismissive, saying the launch was a poor advertisement for Pyongyang's marketing campaign.

"The technology they were seeking after the first two failures was the ability to stage - in other words, transition from one stage of [rocket] boost to the next," he said. "They failed. On the idea of proliferation, would you buy from somebody that had failed three times in a row and never been successful."

Despite international condemnation and the high financial costs to a poverty-wracked nation, North Korea is not likely to give up on its missile or space ambitions, analysts say. Baker says such programs are part of North Korea's tried and true strategy.

"The North Koreans have followed a policy of crisis diplomacy really since the end of the Cold War. And what they do is they create in essence an artificial crisis. That brings the international community rushing in. They eventually negotiate down to the status quo. And North Korea gains rewards for really giving up very little, if anything," he said.

But Bermudez says the failure is still likely to spark an internal review in Pyongyang.

"I firmly believe there will be a bottom-up review of the programs, both the satellite program and the ballistic missile program. Will they continue? I would say yes, I think they will continue. There might be some reforms, some reorganization within the program, but I see no reason why they wouldn't. It will be a great burden on the country, for sure," he said.

The launch has not only sparked U.S. efforts for international condemnation of North Korea at the United Nations, but, analysts say, may also temporarily deflate efforts to revive the stalled six-party talks over North Korea's nuclear program.