Monday, April 16, 2012

Why won't the DPRK learn?

Now, this post isn’t about the Eternal Kingdom learning not to anger the international community, nor about how they can’t seem to square what they do with what their treaties enable them to do, but why they can’t seem to get those darn missiles up in the air.

Looking at the previous rocket launches in 1998 and 2006, there has been a marked lack of improvement or even mild success. In 1998, the Paekdusan (read: Taepodong-1 IRBM) rocket supposedly launched a satellite into space, while this has been disputed by everybody else in the world, to include Russian Space Command. However, with 2 stages of the rocket working, this is the closest the DPRK missile program can call a win.
In 2006, the Unha-2 (read: Taepodong-2 ICBM) missile failed after 42 seconds of flight, and crash-landed in the Sea of Japan after 2 minutes of flight. Reports of the mass detention of trombone players to prevent the playing of ‘wah waaaah’ have not been confirmed.

In 2009, another Unha-2 launch went more smoothly, but failed to separate at the third stage, much as the Paekdusan in 1998, sending another DPRK satellite to a watery grave.

And, of course, very recently the Unha-3 (Taepodong-2, again) had a smashing launch, as it smashed into the ocean. This caused a rare admission of failure by the KCNA, as they had invited a large number of foreign journalists to the launch, and foreign journalists are notorious for reporting what they actually see.

Looking back at the history of disappointing the DPRK leadership can give us clues as to why they seem to not be improving in their designs as expected. Many of the DPRK space launches take place around important dates. The recent Unha-3 launch was in commemoration of Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birthday, the 2009 launch was around the 4th of July and immediately prior to a space shuttle launch, the 2006 nuclear test was the day before Party Foundation Day, etc. If a scientist is working on a big project that has all the world watching, and it fizzles or it fails, given the nature of the regime it is likely that the scientist would be exiled from the DPRK scientific community and/or come down with a terminal case of high-velocity lead poisoning.

In this environment where failure, a key component of the scientific method, is not tolerated, progress will be at a snail’s pace. Iranian scientists, using North Korean technology, were able to put a satellite into orbit successfully, and part of the reason is that they were not working under the same restraints as the DPRK. While our allies in the region might want to keep their eyes on the sky for falling debris, we in the US have precious little to fear from the North Korean ICBM program.

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