Experts say past North Korean rocket launches failed


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This isn’t the first time that North Korea has announced it is launching a satellite into space, alarming world leaders who believe the isolated regime is actually testing its ballistic missile technology.

But it would be a first if it actually works. North Korea has attempted similar launches three times before. Western experts say none has succeeded.


Three years ago, the last rocket launch is believed to have failed in its third and final stage, which is supposed to propel the satellite into orbit, said David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Instead it landed in the Pacific Ocean. North Korea nonetheless announced that the launch had been a success. The video above includes footage released by North Korea of the last launch, including a satellite photo of it streaking over the Korean peninsula.

That last failed launch was still seen as a marked improvement over what happened three years earlier, when a similar rocket fizzled just 40 seconds after liftoff, sending debris shooting into the waters off Japan and Russia. Experts believe the rocket faltered during the first stage. At the time, South Korean media quoted defense officials saying its fuel ignition system failed.

‘The second launch was more or less a catastrophe for them,’ said Peter Crail, a nonproliferation analyst with the Arms Control Assn. based in Washington, D.C.

North Korea also claims an earlier launch, its first one, propelled a satellite into orbit broadcasting revolutionary songs. The 1998 launch fueled anxiety in Japan because North Korea sent a rocket over its main island, but experts say no trace of a satellite was ever found.

This time, analysts want to see if North Korea has improved its technology. Instead of sending the rocket east toward Japan, this launch is expected to head south, losing the advantage of the rotation of the Earth, according to an analysis by Wright.

The change means that North Korea needs to send up a lighter satellite and use more fuel to thrust it into orbit, said Ted Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

North Korea is expected to test a system very similar to the one it used last time, Crail said, making this a clear gauge of its progress. The third and final stage, which has deviled the North Koreans in the past, appears to be fashioned much like the Iranian rocket that successfully launched a satellite into orbit three years ago.

“It’s a grave error to think that we’re dealing with an incompetent group of fools,” Postol said. “They have some very serious constraints in terms of the technology available to them -- but they are very competent.”


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Video: The last attempted satellite launch in North Korea in 2009. Credit: Associated Press