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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
Update 20/09/2016: Quotation from an expert, Joshua Pollack, was updated
Update 21/09/2016: Correction of date of Unha-2 launch
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a ground test of a satellite launch vehicle rocket engine, state media said on Tuesday, raising the possibility of another long-range rocket launch this year.
The test, which took place at the Sohae Space Center in North Phyongan Province on the country’s west coast, was referred to as “the ground jet test of a new type high-power engine of a carrier rocket for the geo-stationary satellite,” a statement published by the Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) said on Tuesday.
“The test was aimed to make a final confirmation of the feature of combustion chamber, operation accuracy of valves and control systems and structural reliability of the engine during 200 seconds-long working time,” KCNA said in an English translation of the report.
At the test event, Kim Jong Un also called for additional satellite launch tests at the earliest possible time, the KCNA said, launches which would likely lead to another round of international condemnation.
“He (Kim Jong Un) requested the officials, scientists and technicians to round off the preparations for launching the satellite as soon as possible on the basis of the successful test,” KCNA reported quoting as Kim saying.
In February, North Korea’s long-range rocket test, which successfully placed a satellite into orbit, drew major criticism from world powers, contributing to new sanctions in UNSC Resolution 2270. North Korea is prohibited from launching ballistic missiles or space launch vehicles as part of multiple UN sanctions in response to its nuclear weapons program.
If Pyongyang’s true goal, a geostationary satellite launch could further complicate relations with neighboring countries.
“Any DPRK geostationary satellite would either require a lot of extra fuel to change its inclination once in orbit or it would have to likely overfly a neighboring country,” said Scott LaFoy, an NK Pro contributor and missile specialist.
North Korea’s last launch over neighboring territories, a Unha-2 long-range missile launch in 2009, caused problems with its relationship with Tokyo, due to the risk of falling debris on populated areas.
But if successful, LaFoy said the geostationary capability could give Pyongyang new capabilities, if equipped with the right technology.
“Geostationary satellites provide static coverage of whatever portion of the planet is beneath them, so they are helpful for communications systems and military early warning systems,” he said
POWERFUL BUT DOWN-SCALING
Another specialist based in the United States pointed out that if the North’s claims were true, a rocket engine with 80 tons of force (tf) of thrust is “much more powerful” than anything seen before.
Joshua Pollack, the editor of the Nonproliferation Review, said both engine tests in April and mid-September are liquid-fueled, but the type of engine is different.
“The April engine is a big, heavy contraption in a cradle. … You can see that it involves at least four nozzles: two main engine nozzles and two steering nozzles. This appears to be the first-stage engine for the KN-08 ICBM,” Pollack told NK News.
“The latest engine [on Tuesday] is a single engine, just like the text of the KCNA report says. There’s one nozzle only. They might ‘cluster (putting engines side-by-side)’ a few together to make that powerful launcher.”
Pollack added he had “no doubt” that the North would be able to complete the program, albeit with enough time and at great cost.
The latest test, KCNA said, illustrated the engine’s thrust as being 80tf, proving its feasibility.
“The test showed that thrust and other technological indexes of the engine accurately reached the estimated values, and the feature values of all systems of the engine remained stable throughout the working time,” KCNA added.
The North said the successful manufacture of the engine demonstrated the country’s ability to complete the carrier rocket for geostationary satellite during a five-year program for national aerospace development.
The South’s Joint Chief of Staffs (JCS) admitted the North has improved its rocket technology, but cautioned the military was yet to fully analyze the success or failure of the engine test.
“We (our military) judge that the North conducted an efficiency test of a new high-powered engine for its ‘long-range missile’,” Chief of Public Affairs in the JCS, Jeon Ha-gyu, told reporters during a regular briefing on Tuesday.
“We understand that the thrust [of the engine] has been improved based on the North’s announcement,” Jeon added.
The JCS spokesperson added that the South’s military was closely keeping tabs on the movement of the North’s military, as October marks a forthcoming anniversary of the foundation of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK).
The latest test followed previous state media reports of other engine tests this year, with the KCNA saying engineers conducted a separate ground-jet test of a new type high-power engine for an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at Sohae Space Center in early April.
According to a further report in late March, the North conducted another ground test of a solid-fuel rocket engine, a capability which could shorten launch preparation times, making detection more difficult. The KCNA did not specify if the latest engine test utilized solid fuel or liquid fuel.
The North launched a long-range rocket (or satellite) on February 7, saying it took place as part of a five year program towards national aerospace development.
Picture: Rodong Sinmun