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Failed North Korean Launch: A Truly Bizarre Spectacle

Failed North Korean Launch: A Truly Bizarre Spectacle

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to sit down with Jim Oberg to discuss the trip he and 130 other foreign journalists made to North Korea to witness—or so they thought—the attempted launch into space of a small weather satellite. Oberg, a former space mission controller trained in aerospace engineering, went as a member of the NBC news team, having served for years as NBC’s space consultant. He was for decades the foremost specialist in journalism on the Soviet space program, and, among the 130 invited visitors, was treated with special respect by the North Korean handlers.

So the story he has to tell, as it emerges from our conversation and articles he has published online before and after our talk, is all the stranger. Though the teams of 130 journalists were invited to witness the launch, in the end they were not able to view it. And though it was generally assumed that the North Koreans wanted to demonstrate the purely peaceful character of the test flight, they did not let the visitors see what they would have had to see to confirm that claim.

Satellite Viewing

The North Koreans showed the visitors what they said was the weather satellite to be launched, but the journalists could see the hexagonal object only from the front, consisting of three photovoltaic panels.  The control center director presiding over the event was unable or unwilling to answer rudimentary questions about how the panels would be deployed in space and how its attitude would be regulated. (Oberg wondered silently if the object they were looking at actually contain dangerous fuels.)

A request by the group to witness the installation of the satellite in the missile’s nose cone was rejected, with a mocking invitation to rig up a seat for a journalist so that the skeptic could accompany the satellite into space in the nose cone. The group did obtain a promise from the North Koreans to see photographs of the satellite being installed, but when Oberg asked in basic Korean when that would be, he got no answer—and in fact the photos were never delivered.

Given that the group could see the supposed satellite only from the front, could it have been an empty box? The question may seem far-fetched, and Oberg himself did not evoke that scenario in our conversation. But separately, he has reported that when they toured one North Korean launch control center, they discovered that bulky white consoles had no backs and mostly were empty shells. At another, “several operators wee seated out of reach of their keyboards, and twice as far from the display screens as it the norm in other countries.” The experience of being there was “eerily evocative of a micro Potemkin village,” he wrote.


Although the visitors did get to see a hitherto secretly-located control center and a launch pad with a huge gantry crane—opportunities that Oberg considered the worth the price of admission—they were not allowed to witness the launch in-person, on-site. Instead, they were told they would watch the launch on a closed circuit television setup at a hotel. Yet when the launch actually took place, the screen was dark, and after the fact Oberg has concluded that the North Koreans had never installed the communications equipment to make the feed work. It was an empty promise all along, he believes.

Prior to the launch, Oberg and some of his fellow visitors had hatched a plan to go outside the moment they saw the North Korean  launch start on the television screen, so that they would have a chance of seeing the missile ascend in the sky. After arriving in Korea, Oberg had submitted questions to some experts in the United States about the rocket’s expected path and had obtained precise answers by e-mail.

On the face of it, the plan the journalists adopted may account for why their handlers decided not to let them watch the launch in any way, shape or form. Again, Oberg did not engage in that kind of speculation in our conversation. But he did say that the actual launch path does not appear to have corresponded well to the path one would expect to see if the satellite indeed was the kind of weather satellite the North Koreans had described.

Given that the journalists could not confirm what actually was under the aero shroud atop the rocket, the possibility cannot be excluded of its being “a heat-shielded re-entry vehicle,” Oberg wrote. Hence, “the April 13 flight could have provided perfect cover for dropping the test RV back to earth.”  How so? “It would have fallen into the second stage impact zone off the Philippines, indistinguishable on any tracking radar from stage debris,” Oberg explained in an e-mail.


The overall impression is of extreme incompetence, and not just in the way the North Koreans handled press relations, which Oberg characterizes—perhaps a little gently—as clumsy. The whole long-range missile program has been strikingly inept. “North Korea’s unsuccessful satellite launch attempt on April 13 was the country’s fourth consecutive mission failure in long-range ballistic missile flight tests over a 14-year period,” observes Greg Thielmann, in a recent threat assessment brief.

Thielmann, director of the Realistic Threat Assessment Project at the Arms Control Association in Washington, observes that two days after the test the North Koreans paraded six supposed road-mobile ICBMs that were actually dummies. (Thielmann also makes some very trenchant and caustic observations about how repeated over-estimation of the North Korean missile threat, going back to the influential Rumsfeld Commission report of 1998, has been used to justify some very dubious U.S. military policies—but that’s another story.)

The story here appears to be one of a North Korean leadership elite that is living in a fantasy world. If the Great Leader says something is so then it must be so. If foreign visitors are invited to a space launch to be impressed, they will be impressed. If they are to be convinced that the launch is non-military, they will be so convinced. Real-world facts are of so little real importance, they can be disposed of with the shabbiest of disguises.

Speaking of the Great Leader, Oberg noted in our conversation this week that attempting a launch on a forced schedule such as a special occasion has always been a recipe for disaster. He could provide examples from both the Soviet and U.S. space programs. If for political or other reasons it is decided that a launch must take place at a certain  time, come hell or high water, then unexpected problems will be minimized and go unsolved.

Of course that syndrome will be all the worse if those making the decisions have but a tenuous grip on reality to begin with.



William Sweet

Bill Sweet has been writing about nuclear arms control and peace politics since interning at the IAEA in Vienna during summer 1974, right after India's test of a "peaceful nuclear device." As an editor and writer for Congressional Quarterly, Physics Today and IEEE Spectrum magazine he wrote about the freeze and European peace movements, space weaponry and Star Wars, Iraq, North Korea and Iran. His work has appeared in magazines like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The New Republic, as well as in The New York Times, the LA Times, Newsday and the Baltimore Sun. The author of two books--The Nuclear Age: Energy, Proliferation and the Arms Race, and Kicking the Carbon Habit: The Case for Renewable and Nuclear Energy--he recently published "Situating Putin," a group of essays about contemporary Russia, as an e-book. He teaches European history as an adjunct at CUNY's Borough of Manhattan Community College.