Taepodong-2: Missile or Satellite?

If history be our guide, the North Korean authorities may insist that the “Taepodong-2,” which is being set up for launch in Moosudan-ri, North Hamkyung, is not for military usage, but for the launching of a satellite.

Senior Technical Analyst at Globalsecurity.org Charles P. Vick stated, “North Korea is expected to flight test one or two Teap’o-dong-2(sic) class missiles, either as a satellite launch attempt, or a ballistic missile flight, or both, in the spring or summer of 2009,” in a report entitled “The Latest up-date in North Korean Ballistic Missile & Space Booster Developments.”

North Korea Intellectuals Solidarity (NKIS) reported on the 12th news from its source in North Hamkyung Province, which seemed to confirm the satellite theory; “The Kwangmyungsung-2, an artificial satellite, will be launched soon at the missile site in Moosudan-ri, Hwadae (county),” the source announced.

According to the NKIS report, the Kwangmyungsung-2, allegedly a communications satellite, was developed by the Institute of Electronic War under the Academy of Sciences for Defense.

In practice, intercontinental ballistic missile preparations and processes are analogous to those for the launch of a satellite from this type of device. Only the orbital trajectory, and whether or not a warhead or a different payload is attached, matter, so it is hard to verify any claims on the matter at this stage.

North Korea would therefore be able to insist that any impending launch were that of an artificial satellite, a “peaceful usage of space,” whether it was true or not.

In any case, North Korea is aiming in effect to entice the Obama administration to the negotiating table by flaunting its missile technology.

Korea Institute for Defense Analyses researcher Baek Seung Joo said in a telephone interview with Daily NK, “North Korea could claim they were launching a satellite in order to avoid a head-on collision with the Obama administration; so as not to deteriorate relations with the U.S. and at the same time to show off their missile capabilities.”

President of the Sejong Institute Song Dae Sung noted, “As North Korea claimed that it had launched the Kwangmyungsung-1 after what was in reality the test launch of the Taepodong-1 Missile” in 1998, so this time it may do the same.

Rodong Shinmun stated on the 7th, regarding Iran’s successful Omid (Hope) satellite launch from the third Safir launch vehicle, that it was the fair exercising of their right. Some suggest this is to lay the groundwork for emphasizing the Taepodong-2 launch as that of a satellite.

So, it is highly probable that North Korea will insist it is a satellite. However, North Korea has not conducted any known space industry research to date, and has been threatening South Korea and the U.S., so international society might well not accept such an insistence.

Meanwhile, the U.S. remains unmoved by preparations for a launch. Robert Wood, spokesperson for the State Department, reiterated on the 11th in a daily press briefing that, “We’ve encouraged the North not to take any steps that will… create any kind of tensions in the region. And so we don’t want to see provocative acts on the part of the North that will raise tensions,” he said, mimicking Secretary of State Clinton’s remarks on the subject.