North Korea is being extra naughty this week: the dictatorship is about to launch a giant rocket for scientific purposes. Translation: a giant finger to the rest of the world, and a thermonuclear threat.
The country announced last month that it'd break its promise not to launch any large rockets by, well, launching a large rocket. And its five-day launch window opens right now.
We probably won't have long to wait, though. North Korea is reportedly already fuelling up its three-stage Unha-3 rocket. Which means showtime could be very soon. What does this mean? And how scared should you be?
"Don't act so surprised, Your Highness. You weren't on any mercy mission this time."
The North claims the 30m, three-stage, liquid fuel-burning Unha-3 carries a satellite designed to monitor the country's terrain and weather patterns. This claim has already had several large holes poked in it, owing mostly to the fact that the satellite's estimated path doesn't back this up, the satellite itself is junk, and really, what does North Korea need to look at itself from space for? "For all we know it could just be a bag of rocks on the tip of the booster," one former NASA brain told Danger Room.
And honestly, what's inside doesn't really matter.
This gambit isn't about payload. It isn't about a satellite that may or may not be lurking inside the Unha-3. The rocket itself is the point, period. If North Korea can successfully send something into space for the first time ever, it's a large step closer to the ability to threaten the world with an ICBM; peaceful space missions and nation-destroying ones rely on largely the same technological concepts. "What they're trying to do is perfect their reentry heat shield for a ballistic missile," a former White House policy expert explained to the Washington Post.
A successful launch would also prove that North Korea has a worthy vehicle to sling a nuclear warhead around — or at least try — explained one expert to CNN:
"If they are able to put a satellite into orbit, this creates a new strategic reality," said Victor Cha, a former Asia Director for the White House and author of the new book Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. "It means they have intercontinental ballistic missile reach, which could reach Alaska or Hawaii, the first country outside of the Soviet Union and China to do that."
A successful space launch makes North Korea very close to a legitimate nuke threat — if only by a little bit. But it's momentum.
The Union for Concerned Scientists' David Wright broke the launch scenario down for us in an interview earlier today:
The upper stage of the launcher is designed to carry a lightweight satellite-about 100kg-so it's not clear that structurally it could carry a 1-ton (1000kg) nuclear warhead. But if it could, we estimate this technology could theoretically launch a one-ton warhead to about 10,000-11,000 km ( 6500 miles).
They could certainly launch a 1-ton warhead on the first two stages, and that would have a range of about 7.500 km (5000 miles).
We have not seen North Korea flight test a heat shield for a long-range missile. Because the reentry heating increases with the square of the warhead's speed, the heating would be about 10 times worse for an ICBM than for North Korea's Nodong missile. Heat shield technology is well understood, but you would expect to see a flight test of it if North Korea wanted to have confidence that it could both launch a warhead and get it back to the ground.
The peaceful science cover story is a thin, poorly-performed burlesque show.
The spectre of a successful rocket test — successful meaning "not crashing into the ocean or exploding prematurely", as was the case with similar tests in 2009 and 2006 — is only one fear for the west and North Korea's neighbours. Some experts, like those who recently spoke to CNN, believe the rocket launch is just the prequel to a full blown nuclear bomb test. Think The Godfather paving the way for The Godfather: Part II:
It's what administration officials refer to as the North Korean "two-step," in which one daring act by Pyongyang is followed by another. This time, Washington and its allies are expecting North Korea to conduct a third nuclear bomb test shortly after the launch.
Unless the initial rocket launch is a bust, in which case it's all really just The Godfather: Part III.
What Do We Do?
Nothing, although not for lack of desire. There's simply nothing we can do. Despite claims by Japan that it's going to shoot the thing out of the sky, they'd be lucky to even knock debris away from populated areas, explains the Union of Concerned Scientists:
There are currently no missile defence systems that could shoot down the rocket during its boost phase. The Aegis system is intended to engage warheads in "midcourse" phase, after the missile has burned out and the warheads are coasting above the atmosphere on a predictable path. Aegis was not developed to be able to intercept an accelerating missile in boost phase. Similarly, the U.S. ground-based midcourse missile defence (GMD) system can't attempt an intercept until boost phase ends, and the interceptors are not close enough to the launch site to reach the rocket during its boost phase in any event.
In other words, once it's off the ground, the only thing bringing it back down is either gravity or engineering ineptitude — both of which are very powerful forces of the universe.
Update: Voice of America's Steve Herman reports via Twitter:
#Japan prime min. Noda declares his country now on full alert for #DPRK rocket launch.