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Experts Say North Korea’s Rocket Launch Repeat of Previous Test

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, watches a long range rocket launch into the air in North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo, Feb. 7, 2016.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, watches a long range rocket launch into the air in North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo, Feb. 7, 2016.

North Korea’s latest missile launch may have been a repeat of a past launch, military officials and experts said.

The communist country has put into orbit what it says is an “Earth observation satellite” in what appeared to be a successful launch.

In its first comprehensive assessment of the launch, South Korea’s Defense Ministry said on Tuesday the three-stage launch vehicle separated its boosters successfully and put the satellite into space.

The U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center also said on Sunday it is tracking the satellite and the rocket body in orbit.

Pyongyang’s apparent success, however, may have been a repeat of a past achievement. Officials in Seoul said Sunday’s launch is similar to Pyongyang’s successful launch in December 2012. Experts say details of the latest effort, including the satellite orbit, appear to match those of 2012. Before the new launch, many observers had expected Pyongyang to send up a more advanced and larger rocket, citing improved facilities at the country’s west coast launch site.

Show of past success

In a report released by the 38 North website, which specializes in North Korean issues, John Schilling, an aerospace engineer and missile technology specialist, said the launch “looks very much like a repeat of its successful launch a little over three years ago.”

The size of the rocket appears to be the same as the Unha-3 fired in 2012 and “the shape and the engine exhaust plumes are also nearly identical,” according to Schilling.

Some note differences between the two launches. During the 2012 launch, the first stage of the rocket fell into the sea, and was recovered by the South Korean military. The latest launch apparently involved the explosion of the first stage of the rocket, sparking speculation that the launch might have failed. The cause of the explosion remains unknown. But South Korean officials suspected North Koreans may have planned the explosion in an attempt to keep South Koreans from recovering their rocket.

The new rocket is also believed to be capable of carrying a payload heavier than that of the old rocket.

Missile test in disguise

Kim Jin-moo with Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a research arm of South Korea’s Defense Ministry, said Pyongyang is trying to gain confidence in a long-range rocket launch though repeated tests.

“They have successfully launched nearly the same rocket two times. Their confidence in the rocket must have gone up,” said Kim.

Military officials in Washington are raising concerns that Pyongyang’s move is a missile test in disguise.

On Tuesday, the top U.S. intelligence official warned of Pyongyang’s newly developed road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile.

“We assess that North Korea has already taken initial steps toward fielding this system, although the system has not been flight-tested,” said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.