North Korea blames ‘new-type engine’ for satellite launch failure

The North’s rocket carrying a spy satellite exploded after takeoff, state media reported.
By Taejun Kang for RFA
2024.05.28
Taipei, Taiwan
North Korea blames ‘new-type engine’ for satellite launch failure A rocket carrying spy satellite Malligyong-1 is launched at a location given by the North Korean government as North Gyeongsang Province, North Korea in this handout picture obtained by Reuters on Nov. 21, 2023.
KCNA via Reuters

UPDATED on May 28 2024 at 2:43 p.m.

North Korea’s latest attempt to launch a military reconnaissance satellite was unsuccessful because of a problem with the reliability of a new rocket, which led to a mid-air explosion during the first-stage flight, state media reported on Tuesday.

The launch came just hours after leaders of South Korea, Japan and China reaffirmed their commitment to pursuing the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in their first summit in five years, in Seoul.

North Korea had earlier notified Japan of its plan to launch a satellite sometime before June 4, in violation of U.N. sanctions, and designated three areas where rocket debris could have fallen.

The rocket carrying the satellite exploded after its takeoff from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on North Korea’s northwest coast on Monday, said the vice general director of the North’s National Aerospace Technology Administration, or NATA, the North’s Korean Central News Agency reported.

“The launch failed due to the air blast of the new-type satellite carrier rocket during the first-stage flight,” the NATA official was quoted as saying.

A preliminary examination by experts from the North’s launch preparatory committee concluded that the “accident” was attributable to the operational reliability of a new “liquid oxygen plus petroleum” engine, said the official, adding that other causes of the failure would also be examined.

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A North Korean flag flutters on top of the 160-meter tall tower at North Korea’s propaganda village of Gijungdong, in this picture taken from Tae Sung freedom village near the Military Demarcation Line, inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Paju, South Korea, Sept. 30, 2019. (Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo/Reuters)

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command criticized North Korea’s rocket launch, saying it was assessing the situation in close coordination with allies and partners.

“We are aware of the DPRK’s May 27 launch using ballistic missile technology, which is a brazen violation of multiple unanimous UNSC [U.N. Security Council] resolutions, raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region and beyond,” the command said in a statement, using an acronym for the North Korean state.

At a press briefing, U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller also slammed the failed launch, saying the ​​technologies used satellite “are virtually identical to those used in its unlawful ballistic missile program” that violate “multiple” U.N. Security Council sanctions.

Russian support

The launch came amid speculation that deepening military cooperation with Russia might have helped North Korea advance its space rocket launch capabilities and other military programs.

A senior South Korean government official told the media on Sunday that a large number of Russian experts had entered North Korea to help with its spy satellite efforts after Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to support such a program last year. 

A South Korean military official told reporters on Tuesday that Russia may have provided the first stage propellant for the new launch vehicle.

“We have to keep open the possibility of technical assistance at all levels,” said the official. “I think we have to look at the time frame, whether it was just technical assistance, whether they provided parts, and so on.”

The official added that unlike during the two failures last year, the North has not announced plans for additional launches and has said that they have reached only preliminary conclusions about the cause of this failure, so further launches are likely to take some time.

North Korea successfully launched its first satellite in November.

Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said it appeared Pyongyang tried to use a mixture of liquid oxygen and kerosene as propellant.

That mixture has been used by NASA for moon missions, he noted, and is still used by Russia to propel its Angara and Soyuz-2 rockets.

“It is possible that Russia has helped North Korea to some extent. The rocket that Kim Jong Un viewed during his meeting with Putin uses liquid oxygen and kerosene,” Lewis told Radio Free Asia.

“The North Korean statement implies that aerodynamic forces tore the rocket apart.  This could have been caused by a structural deficiency in the rocket or by a loss of control that contorted the missile,” he said.

Markus Schiller, a North Korean missile expert from Germany-based ST Analytics, also pointed the finger at Russia.

“North Korea had shown no indications that they were pursuing this technology, not to mention mastering it. It takes many years and hundreds, or thousands of static engine tests to get a new engine for a satellite launcher up and running,” Schiller told RFA.

“Therefore, one has to assume that North Korea got some help here. By whom, and what kind of help, remains unknown so far. My guess though would be that Russia shipped over some of their engines,” he said.

‘Unusual move’

North Korea also condemned the trilateral summit declaration on the denuclearization of the peninsula as a “grave political provocation and sovereignty violation,” which South Korea’s Ministry of Unification said was an unusual reaction. 

While [the North’s criticism] was focused on South Korea, it was unusual for it to publicly malign a meeting attended by China,” a ministry spokesperson told reporters in Seoul on Tuesday. 

It was hard to find a precedent for public North Korean criticism of a summit attended by China, the official said, with the exception of a 2015 China-South Korea summit.

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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Premier Li Qiang leave after a joint press conference in Seoul, South Korea, May 27, 2024. (Kim Hong-Ji/Pool/Reuters)

At Monday’s summit, the three neighbors’ first since 2019, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida denounced the North’s planned satellite launch as a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions that ban its use of ballistic missile technology.

Chinese Premier Li Qiang called on all “related countries” to exercise restraint to mitigate tensions, without referring to North Korea directly.

Edited by Mike Firn. Updated to include comments from analysts and the U.S. State Department spokesperson.

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