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14 Jun 2024 12:36
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  •   Home > News > International

    North Korea's attempt to launch second military satellite fails, quelling fears of improved missile capability

    North Korea has tried and failed to launch a military satellite into space — a move that had threatened to violate United Nations conventions and further inflame tensions in the region.

    North Korea has tried and failed to launch a military satellite into space — a move that had threatened to violate United Nations conventions and further inflame tensions in the region.

    North Korea's state media said a rocket carrying the spy satellite exploded in mid-air shortly after launch on Monday.

    The military reconnaissance satellite would have been North Korea's second in space. Pyongyang successfully launched its first into orbit on November 21, 2023, in a self-described bid to respond to US-led military threats.

    Instead, Monday's launch became the hermit kingdom's third failed attempt.

    North Korea fired the projectile on a southern path off its west coast about 10:44pm local time, the South's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, noting they detected a large amount of debris from the rocket falling into the sea just two minutes after launch.

    Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters North Korea's rocket disappeared over the Yellow Sea.

    "These launches are in violation of relevant security council resolutions and are a serious matter concerning the safety of our people," Mr Hayashi said.

    The United States also condemned the launch, which a State Department spokesperson said "incorporated technologies that are directly related to the DPRK's ballistic missile program and took place in violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions".

    Planned launched raised nuclear fears

    The prospect of Pyongyang successfully sending a second satellite into space, which many believed would help the nuclear-armed nation trial its precision-strike capabilities, "sent shivers up the spines" of officials in multiple countries, according to Emma Briant, an associate professor in News and Political Communication at Monash University.

    "If they [North Korea] were able to successfully advance their satellite technology, they would be able to have stronger missile precision guidance systems," Dr Briant, who studies information warfare in security and defence, explained.

    "Obviously having nuclear weapons is something that makes North Korea a major regional threat, but those are vastly more dangerous if you have produced precision guidance systems."

    South Korea's Unification Ministry previously suggested that North Korea's launch of a second rocket satellite would signal "a provocation that seriously threatens our and regional security".

    Hours after the announcement of North Korea's planned launch, the leaders of South Korea, Japan and China reaffirmed their commitment to pursuing denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.

    South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Premier Li Qiang reached the agreement at a trilateral summit in Seoul — the first such meeting of the three East Asian nations in almost five years.

    "We reaffirmed that maintaining peace, stability and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula and in north-east Asia serves our common interest and is our common responsibility," the leaders said in a statement.

    "We reiterated positions on regional peace and stability, denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the abduction issue, respectively. We agree to continue to make positive efforts for the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue."

    Bronwen Dalton, a specialist on North and South Korean politics, told ABC News on Tuesday that countries such as the US, South Korea and Japan would "definitely breathe a sigh of relief" following news of the launch failure.

    "But of course, they'll be watching for the next one," she added. "Because they [North Korea] are not going to stop trying to get eyes in the sky now."

    Russia helping the hermit kingdom

    Experts believe Russia might be helping North Korea with its space program, with some suggesting ahead of Monday's attempted launch that the success or failure of the mission would demonstrate the extent of Moscow's influence and how much satellite-related technology, knowledge and expertise it might have shared with Pyongyang.

    "Why this is significant and really ruffling feathers is because we're about to test what the new cosy relationship between Russia and North Korea means for North Korea," Professor Dalton told ABC News on Monday.

    Diplomatic ties between Pyongyang and Moscow have warmed in recent years as North Korea has become one of the few nations willing to supply weapons and ammunition to assist Vladimir Putin's war in Ukraine, according to Professor Dalton.

    In exchange, she said, Russia might be helping North Korea overcome a barrier it has long struggled to surmount: the ability "to reach, literally, the heights of space and send a satellite into orbit".

    Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged in September that Russia would help North Korea with its space program.

    A senior South Korean defence official said on Sunday a large number of Russian experts and technicians had entered North Korea to support its spy satellite launch efforts.

    Neither Moscow nor Pyongyang have detailed what aid is being provided.

    If North Korea were to master sending a satellite into space they could "master intercontinental ballistic missile technology that is far more serious", Professor Dalton said.

    "That's why everyone's worried: We're about to find out what the Russians have taught them," she said.

    Further fuelling suspicions of Russia's involvement in Monday's attempted launch are revelations that the rocket featured a new "liquid oxygen and petroleum engine".

    Lee Choon-geun, an honorary research fellow at South Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute, said some of his country's space rockets were initially developed with Russia decades ago and they used similar technology.

    "Russia is the strongest country for liquid oxygen-kerosene fuel, and our Naro and Nuri rockets have adopted it through technical cooperation with Russia," he said.

    Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said if Russia helped design the new rocket or satellite, North Korea would also most likely need Russian components well into the future, deepening the cooperation.

    "North Koreans can re-launch soon if they obtain and analyse data correctly for that two-minute flight," Shin said.

    South Korea's military, however, said it could take North Korea some time before it could try to launch again.

    Cause of launch failure under investigation

    A report by North Korea's National Aerospace Technology Administration (NATA) said initial analysis suggested the newly developed liquid fuel rocket motor was to blame for the launch failure, but other possible causes were being investigated.

    "The launch of the new satellite carrier rocket failed when it exploded in mid-air during the flight of the first stage," the deputy director general of NATA said.

    Following the failed launch, Professor Dalton said while it was difficult to know the exact cause of the failure, or what role Russia's potential involvement, she would not rule out the possibility of "user failure".

    "Having been there over the years, I have far more confidence in Russian satellite technology than North Korean capacity to deploy missiles," she said, suggesting Pyongyang's insularity and reluctance to let outsiders into the country meant "it's always a challenge for North Korea to get good at things". 

    "You suffer intellectually collectively as a country when you close yourself off to that degree," she said.

    "When you're dealing with a completely hermetically sealed regime you haven't got the same ability to educate or train the people to use the products, and you haven't got people who've been educated in foreign institutions."

    Dr Briant similarly suggested North Korea's repeated struggles to send satellites into orbit were likely due to the hermit kingdom's unwillingness to welcome outside influence and expertise.

    "I would expect they will continue work on the project with ongoing help from Russia," Dr Briant said.

    "But it just goes to show the damage to scientific development that results from isolation."



    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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