Less than a month ago, we were still getting acquainted with the salvaged chunks and bits of the Unha-3 first stage that South Korea’s Navy had hoisted from the watery deep. It seems that some people have been busy in the meantime, because a multinational, mostly South Korean team of experts (52 of them, by one count) has picked the pieces apart and made determinations about where they come from.
Their answer, for the most part: North Korea.
(Why so quick? The rapid turn-around probably owes something to South Korea’s experience with investigating the destruction of the Cheonan in 2010. They seem to have been ready to get a forensic team in place this time.)
The report was released yesterday in South Korea, but has yet to crop up online. When it does, I’ll post it here. For now, let’s break down what the briefers have told reporters.
1. The frame
According to Yonhap and the Kyunghyang Shinmun, the frame is made of an aluminum-magnesium alloy, AlMg6, produced in North Korea. The report says that the oxidizer tank (above) “was made of several patch panels, which showed poor welding and uneven surfaces, an indication that North Korea seems to have no advanced technology in that area.” But one official qualified this finding, saying, “The welding was not clean and the quality appeared as though it was made with a hammer, but despite the appearance, the technology was not coarse.”
How to square that circle? “Not coarse” may refer to the alloy itself. If this story (in Korean) means what I take it to mean, then it’s now believed that North Korea has started beating sanctions by importing bauxite ore from China rather than aluminum, and is using the ore to produce aluminum domestically. This finding may lend credence to the Asahi’s November 2012 report about an attempted export of high-strength aluminum from North Korea to Burma.
Juche, they call it.
2. The electronics
But not juche all the way. The recovered pieces included between six and ten bits of electronic gear — pressure sensors, temperature sensors, a voltage converter, and wires — that the experts recognized as foreign-made. These pieces were tracked back to five specific countries, four of which were not named for diplomatic reasons. The fifth is China, which I suppose was named for undiplomatic reasons. A source who spoke to The Hankyoreh mentioned that these were portable, dual-use components that “would have been easy to buy, even by someone who was traveling.”
Another source added, “The foreign-manufactured parts are not included in the items that are restricted by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1874, which was passed in 2009, or the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).” This is a fancy way of saying that nothing on this list was really specific to rockets and missiles.
For the curious: MTCR Annex and UNSCR 1874.
Which brings us to something that is specific to rockets and missiles. I speak of
3. The engines
Here’s where the story gets interesting.
It’s been pretty clear for awhile that the first stage of the Unha-3 involves a cluster of four Nodong engines. The Iranians displayed just such a cluster a few years back:
It sure looks prettier before it hits the water. The floral display doesn’t hurt, either.
One or more experts quoted in the news stories were quick to make this connection, but it’s not obvious who owes what technology to whom.
Every discussion that I’ve been party to about the four-Nodong cluster has assumed that it steers the same way that the original Nodong does, with jet vanes. But according to Yonhap, the Hankyoreh, the Kyunghyang, and the Chosun, the report concludes instead that the first stage of the Unha-3 steers with vernier engines. These are small auxiliary engines. (The second stage of Iran’s Safir space launcher uses verniers of a Soviet design to supply its thrust.) In this case, they were unexpected.
The Kyunghyang also reports that the Unha-3 first stage uses a regenerative cooling system. How surprising that should be, I’m not sure. As I might have mentioned, I’m no missile expert.
The bottom line is twofold. First, this engine looks somewhat novel, in the sense that it reconfigures foreign-origin technologies in new and slightly unexpected ways. (Recently overheard: If the Soviet space program was Apple, then the North Korean program is Samsung.) Second, in case you missed it, the experts have judged that the engine was produced in North Korea.
4. The implications
We don’t have the report itself (yet) and aren’t in an ideal position to judge its accuracy (yet), so in place of a conclusion, let’s just cautiously advance a handful of observations.
First, other than some of the details of the engine design, and perhaps the aluminum alloy judged to be locally produced, nothing here comes as a huge surprise. For years now, publicly available reports from the U.S. intelligence community (here’s one) have contained statements like, “North Korea continues to pursue the development, production, and deployment of ballistic missiles with increasing range and sophistication. It continues to procure the needed raw materials and components from various foreign sources to support its missile industry.” That sort of assessment looks pretty good in light of the Unha-3 report, at least as it’s described here.
And really, why shouldn’t it look pretty good? Just where do you think Libya’s North Korean Scud-C missiles went?
Second, the findings reported yesterday nevertheless do come as a surprise to many people, including some very well-qualified non-governmental missile experts whom I hold in high esteem. As Josh warned a few years ago, there has been a tendency to underestimate what North Korea can do in the space and missile field, and possibly with technology in general.
At the root of these perceptions may be the close, personal encounter that many Western experts had with the Iraqi missile program in the 1990s and early 2000s through participation in UNSCOM or UNMOVIC. That’s an excellent qualification to engage in this type of analysis and certainly far beyond anything I can offer. But it also can be a distorting lens, if it leads to a presumption that North Korea in 2013 is no more capable than Iraq in 2003. Anyone who has subscribed to that view now faces the unhappy prospect of having to mark their beliefs to market. But there are worse things, if it comes to that.
Third, this seems as good a time as any to start considering the implications of the Unha-3 first stage for North Korea’s ability to design and build rocket engines.
Hopefully, it won’t be too long before we have the report itself.