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Why North Korea's Space Program Is Like a PlayStation 4

Last month, North Korea launched a satellite. The regime claimed it was for peaceful purposes, but the UN slapped them with sanctions anyway. So who's full of it?

by Ryan Faith
Mar 4 2016, 6:00pm

Kim Jong-un incontra il personale militare durante il test id lascio di un nuovo sistema missilistico. (Foto via KCNA/EPA)

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.

The UN just passed a resolution imposing a whole new mess of sanctions on North Korea and all but sending the Pyongyang regime to bed without dinner. North Korea responded in its customary fashion: by launching a bunch of missiles into the ocean, which accomplished little unless it was a very elaborate scheme to kill fish.

The proximate causes of this somewhat surreal exchange are North Korea's recent nuclear test and satellite launch. The launch used a rocket called the Unha-3 to launch, Pyongyang claims, a totally peaceful satellite with the snappy handle Kwangmyongsong-3 — or Bright Star 3 — for earth observation, land-use monitoring, and that sort of thing.

The exchange between North Korea and pretty much everyone else has been pretty much par for the course: disagree and denounce first, ask questions later. North Korea does something and claims that it is super dangerous and/or totally peaceful; the US leads the rest of the world in disagreeing vehemently with whatever it was that North Korea just said.

Just for the sake of argument, let's buck conventional wisdom and say that North Korea is being honest about the space launch. What if it really is a purely peaceful effort? After all, the US program to land a guy on the Moon may have been political, but it was peaceful; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn't spend their time bopping across the lunar surface building fortifications or planting space mines.

Journalists walk in front of the Unha-3 rocket at the West Sea Satellite in the northwest of Pyongyang in 2012. (Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters) 

So the big question is whether it's even slightly possible that the North Korean launch was for peaceful purposes.

The main argument for the idea that the launch wasn't cover for a sneaky intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test is that the Unha-3 rocket would make for a crappy nuclear missile. Yes, it could technically deliver a payload to the other side of the planet. But as something you'd use in a real fight, it kinda sucks.

In general, rocket engines can be either fast and put out a lot of power quickly, or they can be efficient. Thrust is basically about power, and it's a great way to get altitude. Since an ICBM is ballistic, it's about getting the projectile as high as you can, which, in turn, means a premium on getting a big bang. In rocket terms, a big bang means high thrust and low efficiency.

Related: North Korea Has Nukes and Missiles — But Does That Mean It Has Nuclear Missiles?

A space launch is about altitude at first, but in the longer term, it's more about speed. It's not the altitude that keeps stuff in orbit, but rather the speed at which the object is moving. The altitude is just about not running into stuff when you're trying to go fast enough to stay in orbit. If the payload keeps managing to move forward long enough and fast enough that it keeps not crashing into the ground, then you've got something in orbit.

So the first stage of a launch vehicle is just like the engines on an ICBM. Once it's up to a reasonably high altitude, the rocket turns and begins the process of building up enough speed so that the payload continues not crashing back into the Earth. If you're going so fast that you keep missing the planet, that means you're in freefall and you're orbiting that planet.

Lo and behold, the upper stages of the Unha-3 — Milky Way 3 in English — are the kind of low-thrust engines we'd expect out of a space launch vehicle, not an ICBM. And you can't make the claim that it doesn't matter, because you can't just put a new engine in and instantly use it as an ICBM. Changing the engine on a rocket is such a big deal that you're practically making an entire new rocket.

Going further up the rocket, there's the question of payload. Some estimates figure that the Unha-3 could put about 440 pounds all the way into orbit, but could fling as much as 1.1 tons of really bad stuff over to Austin, Texas. And this is where the nuke testing comes in.

A 1.1-ton nuke would be heavy by today's American standards, but light by 1960s standards. The North Koreans are not nearly as good at making nukes as Americans have become, but they have been honing their nuclear bomb-making skills to make smaller, lighter, more efficient warheads — so maybe the Unha-3 could carry the payload.

But if, per conventional wisdom, the North Koreans were unsuccessful with their last nuke test — if North Korea had tried and failed to build a big, high-yield, staged, city-busting H-bomb — then it's a different story. Those kinds of bombs are complex and hard to shrink down without a whole heap of engineering. So, if the narrative is that they built a big, heavy bomb that doesn't work, then the Unha-3 wouldn't have a prayer of dropping that bad boy off on the capital of the biggest state in the continental US, if it even worked in the first place.

On the other hand, if that blast was a test of a smaller, more efficient boosted fission bomb, then yes, the Unha-3 could have enough capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead.

Related: Yes, North Korea Probably Tested an H-Bomb — Just Not the Kind You're Thinking Of

But there's probably no reason to evacuate Austin just yet. One of the things that any properly attired warhead should have is a re-entry vehicle. Those warheads are coming in hard and fast and end up getting super, super hot. All those delicate nuke parts need something to protect them from all that heat. That particular something is called a heat shield.

There's no evidence that North Korea has any sort of re-entry vehicle or heat shield. But, for all we know, they bought a re-entry vehicle off of Craigslist. So let's call this one a wash; there are too many unknowns to figure out whether this supports or trashes the idea that the launch was peaceful.

Look at that skeleton of a launch tower next to the rocket in the picture above. All girder and gantry standing out there naked under the open sky. If the US and North Korea get really serious about blowing each other up, it wouldn't be very long at all before the US military remodeled that gantry, whose location is known down to the millimeter, into an abstract art installation. So the fact that the Unha-3 uses a gantry (as opposed to a buried, fortified silo) is a pretty strong point in favor of the idea that the launch was peaceful ­— or at least that the Unha-3 would make for a pretty lousy ICBM — because as a weapon, it would have an exceedingly short life. Sure, you could launch a surprise nuclear attack on Washington, DC, but we're talking about the rocket as a weapon, not nuclear suicide-by-cop.

The launch gantry brings up another point. It took these guys at least a week, if not a month, to get the rocket ready for launch. You don't need to be a hotshot nuclear war strategist to know that a month of prep time isn't exactly the kind of lightning-fast response time you need when the nuclear shit is hitting the fan. Mark down another point for the peaceful launch vehicle hypothesis.

But even if, for the sake of argument, you assume that the North Koreans are, in this particular case, clean and pure as the driven snow, there is still a problem.

Watch VICE News' Launching Balloons into North Korea: Propaganda Over Pyongyang

Even the most peaceful, sweet, and kind space launch is super difficult and requires a ton of hard-earned knowledge and technical expertise. So does making a usable ICBM. If the North Koreans are smart enough to build themselves a space launch vehicle, then they're damned well smart enough to make an ICBM. And if they're smart enough to both launch a satellite into space and make an ICBM, they're not so dumb that they'll fail to realize that being able to make one teaches you an awful lot about how to do the other.

In fact, there is literally no way to build a conventional launch vehicle that doesn't teach you a whole lot about making an ICBM. They're not 100 percent identical technologies, but they're close enough to interbreed.

This brings us to the original sin of efforts to stem the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, and suchlike: dual-use technology.

Consider efforts to limit the export of current-generation game consoles like the PlayStation 4 because they're powerful enough computers to handle all the math and computation that goes into something like, say, 3D modeling and shock physics simulations for nuclear weapons applications. When you open Santa's present, it's a gaming console. When Kim Jong-un opens the same present, it's a menace to international stability. Whether or it's a gaming console or a key piece of nuclear weapons program doesn't depend on Santa. It's all about who is unwrapping the present.

Dual-use technologies are normally described as technology that can be used for either peaceful or militaristic purposes. Take the weapon issued to a cop with the understanding that he'll shoot only bad people who are putting someone else's life in jeopardy. But that gun could also be used in the horrific shooting of an unarmed kid. Or what if a bad guy attacks the cop, takes his gun away, and shoots the cop? And that's even before you get to the entirely different problem of stopping bad guys from getting their own guns.

There's no reason that a gun or rocket must be used for evil purposes. Conversely, there's no assurance that they won't be used for evil.

It's all a matter of trust. And if you fundamentally don't trust the other guy, you'll never escape the nagging suspicion that maybe he's a lying dirtbag who is trying to lull you into a false sense of security.

In fact, that very same trust issue was at the root of the entire Iraq War/WMD intelligence disaster. Non-proliferation efforts to curb WMD development are built around quantifiable, repeatable tests and documented evidence. Were these seals intact when the inspectors checked them? Did the inventory of nerve gas shells match the quantity of shells in the warehouse? What happened to those colonies of bacteria you were breeding for biological weapons? They died, you say? How did you dispose of all those little critters? Flushed them down the toilet? Really?

Unfortunately, dumb shit happens in a bureaucracy: files are lost, things are counted incorrectly, people are absent-minded. But if you don't fundamentally trust the other side, then every bureaucratic screw-up becomes another bit of solid evidence, proving you were right all along and those guys really are a menace.

Related: A Former CIA Official Apologizes to 'Every American' For Iraq Intelligence Failures

On one hand, if you're talking about a good guy getting this or that powerful technology, then you'll rationalize to yourself that there's no reason that this power has to be used for evil purposes. When the inevitable discrepancies and errors turn up, you'll give the good guy the benefit of the doubt.

On the other hand, if you're talking about someone widely seen as a bad guy, you'll want proof that it is completely impossible to do something evil with this or that technology. And when all those inevitable snafus crop up along the way, they'll become a body of evidence that supports your hunch that they can't be trusted with that kind of power.

This sort of problem is pervasive throughout the world of arms control. Think back to the North Korean nuke test. The North Koreans said, "Fear us, for we are threatening!" and the US downplayed the whole thing. A couple of weeks later, the North Koreans launched a rocket, but that time the US said, "Fear them, for they are threatening!" while the North Koreans downplayed it all as peaceful and harmless.

Clearly, the US and North Korea have some trust issues. Whether those trust issues are completely legitimate is another thing entirely.

So when people debate about whether the North Korean space launch had some sort of ulterior motive or was cover for a military operation, they're missing the point: it doesn't matter in the slightest. There's no peaceful space launch vehicle development that isn't military, and even if there were, there's no way the US and company would trust North Korea anyhow.

The US isn't going to come right out and say, "Sorry you wanted to launch a satellite to help you manage your weak agricultural sector, but you deserve to starve because you can't shut up about nuking Austin." And North Korea is not about to say, "Of course this launch has military applications. This is all part of our elaborate scheme to bring the West to its knees by nuking Austin."

Instead, we get yelling, indignation, and vicious North Korean missile strikes on innocent local fish. And this is why even the most rigorous and sincere nuke deal such a complete pain.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Read and watch more about North Korea in "March Madness," a VICE News special section on the Hermit Kingdom.