North Korea's new space launcher reveals progress in missile technology

Despite a failed launch, North Korea's Chollima-1 space launcher indicates significant progress in the country's missile technology.
Daniel Lehewych
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North Korea's newest attempt at a space launch fell short of its goal this week, but it offered a glimpse of the regime's progress in missile technology. According to Reuters, the rocket, christened Chollima-1, is believed to be a new design and is likely powered by engines developed for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).

Chollima-1's Debut Launch

The rocket lifted off successfully on its first launch attempt on Wednesday. Still, its second stage failed to ignite, causing the vehicle to crash into the Yellow Sea. This outcome was openly reported by North Korean state media, which also released photos of the lift-off.

"The launch vehicle we saw is of a completely different design than the older Unha series of space launch vehicles," said Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It appears to use an engine that appeared in an earlier North Korean intercontinental-range ballistic missile."

The new engine seems similar to the dual-nozzle liquid-fuel machine used in North Korea's Hwasong-15 ICBM, said Joseph Dempsey, a defense researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. This engine, according to some experts, is derived from the Soviet RD-250 family of engines.

Rocket Technology Advancements

The Chollima-1's launch caused a light grey residue around the launch pad and nearby areas, which was noted by 38 North, a U.S.-based organization monitoring North Korean activity. However, the cause of this residue remains unclear.

The international community, including the United States, has criticized North Korea's use of ballistic missile technology for space launches, asserting that it violates United Nations Security Council resolutions. However, Panda points out that unlike in 2016, when North Korea last attempted a satellite launch, the regime no longer needs to disguise its weapons tests as space launches due to its robust ICBM program.

The Chollima-1 is thought to be a medium-lift space launch vehicle designed to deliver small satellites to low earth orbit. However, North Korea's stated objective of eventually launching multiple satellites on one rocket indicates they may unveil a larger launch vehicle.

Meanwhile, South Korea is trying to recover parts of the failed North Korean rocket. If successful, these components could offer valuable insights into North Korea's rocket and missile production, particularly concerning any foreign materials being used. Panda stated, "We believe increasingly that North Korea has largely managed to become self-sufficient with manufacturing airframes and many of the structural components of its engines, but there are still likely some components that North Korea is importing from overseas."

While the launch failure of the Chollima-1 is a setback for North Korea, it is clear the country continues to advance its missile technology.

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