Jeffrey LewisAnother Taepodong Failure

This plot from Google Earth shows the announced splashdown zones and the locations of the splashdowns from a story in the Yomiuri. Credit: David Wright.

Based on where the second stage fell, it is clear that the North Korean satellite launch was another failure.

Oh-for-three. These guys really suck.


Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan/East Sea. The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean.

No object entered orbit and no debris fell on Japan

(I would also direct you to SEESAT, where they have a nice discussion going.)

Update. The wags are out. “Paul” writes:

According to the US Navy the highly unique North Korean satellite has entered subaquatic orbit in the Pacific Ocean, and is transmitting melodies of the immortal revolutionary paeans Song of General Kim Il-sung and Song of General Kim Jong-il on a 15 kHz acoustic channel.

Seriously, the best thing about this blog are the readers. That is pure genius, right down to the frequency.


  1. Paul (History)

    According to the US Navy the highly unique North Korean satellite has entered subaquatic orbit in the Pacific Ocean, and is transmitting melodies of the immortal revolutionary paeans ‘Song of General Kim Il-sung’ and ‘Song of General Kim Jong-il’ on a 15 kHz acoustic channel.

  2. raghar (History)

    Aww poor babies, they tried so hard.

    At least they know the failure was in the midflight of the second stage, so the third attempt might be more successful.

  3. Sascha LHX

    Actually, this raises the question of how much Iran’s missile technology resembles North Koreans’. If Iranians and North Koreans are using the same techniques how come Iranians succeeded but not North Koreans who are allegedly responsible for providing the basics to Iranians?

    Doesn’t this actually prove Iranians don’t share all aspects of their missile program with NK, and they have an independent (& parallel) program of their own? How much truth is then in the wide spread “close cooperation” argument?

    It seems Iranians are steps ahead.

  4. Muskrat

    This shows the brilliance of MDA. Previous tests didn’t crash. They were built with interceptors which can see into the future and adjust their trajectories downward to match that of the target years ahead of time. Zaphod Beeblebrox would be/has been/will be/ was at one point proud.

  5. Tim

    The North Koreans now have demonstrated all the prerequisite technologies in order to be able to cause a small nuclear device to misfire at an unpredictable location in the Pacific Ocean.

    This is clearly an attempt to blackmail whales into beach themselves more often North Korean coast, where starving peasants will be expected to use their bare hands to extract whale oil to be used as jet fuel.

    Clever little bastards.

  6. Arrigo (History)

    Apr 4 2009 (KCNA): Long live the revolution! The Glorious Space Forces of our Dear Leader and his Son have managed to slip our latest stealth very sub-orbital satellite, codenamed 안개가 자욱한, past the Imperialist Scum. The brilliance of the roaring engines, the Fire of the Revolution Mk. II, illuminated the Glorious Land and as the Imperialist Scum observed the decoys our satellite successfully entered VLEO under the auspicious constellation of Pisces.

  7. Derek (History)

    “Pyongyang claims it launched an experimental communications satellite into orbit Sunday and that it’s transmitting data and patriotic songs.” Yahoo News

    Interesting that they are claiming this a successful launch. Have they publicly acknowledged their previous failures? (“You’ve got no arms left!” “Yes I have.”)

  8. BJR
  9. bobbymike (History)

    Let’s not be too dismissive. The early US space program sufferred losses on this scale or greater.

    The brand new Bulava (Russian SLBM) is batting .500 (yes the Russians are far more advanced I’m not making a direct comparison) They do call it rocket science for a reason.

  10. Rick

    Pacific plankton will forever live in fear of the mighty reach of Kim Jong Il, now that millions have perished in one mighty splash.

  11. Captain Ned (History)

    Am I correct in assuming that the splashdown point implies a failure of the 2nd-stage burn?

    Can I also assume that a 2nd/3rd staging failure would drop the stack somewhere in the 2nd-stage splashdown zone?

  12. Major Lemon (History)

    A flop boldly decending where no man has yet dared to flop.

  13. pedram (History)

    So who should we trust? Paul or South Korean official who appeared on TV? Any definite word on the success or failure?

    Come on guys, if you are working on ABM, you should be able to differentiate a decoy from a warhead much quicker than this.

  14. Jim Oberg (History)

    Don’t judge NorKorean thinking by external
    standards. As far as their population is concerned,
    both launches succeeded.

    Since they signed the UN Convention on Registration
    of Outer Space Objects recently, expect them to file a report
    on this faux-satellite shortly. Lying to the UN is a totally
    non-dangerous activity, particularly this Convention (both
    the USSR and the USA have already done it with immunity).

    Let’s entertain the notion that neither launch — 1998 or 2009 —
    carried a real third stage and satellite. It was all camouflage,
    say. There was a value to instilling confusion in the outside world.

    The missile tests went ahead, successfully. Overflight of Japan
    was tolerated under the ambiguity of ‘space exploration’, as
    was the intent. BTW, does anyone have a good estimate of the altitude
    of the missile while over Japan? 100 to 200 km or so?

    Military missile test objectives were fully satisfied by a trajectory
    that emulated a typical earth satellite ascent, at no real cost for
    the pretense, with the payoff that it contributed to outsider confusion.

    What evidence is there that either 1998 or 2009 ever contained a live
    third stage, as opposed to a mockup warhead? Were there any
    NorKorean ships in a warhead recovery zone east of Hawaii?
    Has anyone asked?

    Speaking of ships, what about recovery of all or parts of the first stage in
    the Sea of Japan? Are there NorKorean ships there, or does Japan have
    clear sailing for its search?

    Interpreting these events using tools that worked on Soviet and Chinese
    mystery missions has led to frustration and bafflement. It’s possible that
    this bafflement is intentionally engineered by clever rocket strategists
    who fully understand the analysis techniques to be applied to their
    own project — and moved to subvert them through subterfuge.

    Sound crazy? I suggest that our ‘classical’ approach to this subject
    matter has been too unimaginative, too by-the-cookbook, and not
    nearly ‘crazy enough’! It certainly hasn’t shown any success at
    providing usable insights or predictive value, so far as I can see.

    Playing ‘guess-their-next-move’ is also fun, if not very helpful. How about this: After two days of celebrating the success of the satellite, Pyongyang suddenly announces it has vanished. The next day, it announces that they’ve figured out that the US shot it down. You can fill in the blanks for ‘the day after THAT’…. and comedy is not a likely component of any answer.

  15. Bruce MacDonald (History)

    Well I suppose the DPRK has communicated something…not necessarily the message they had in mind, though.

  16. Arrigo (History)

    Meanwhile back at the launch complex…

    “Those #@!%$& smartypants at Armscontrolwonk! I would like to see them trying to figure out the inertial reference frames from a manual in Korean, translated from Farsi previously translated from the Egyptian dialect of Arabic which in turn was translated from Russian most likely based on German documents for the V2!”.

    “Next time we put 42 and forget the calculations”.

  17. James (History)

    North Korea may not have a working rocket, but the tests have had the benefit of getting the US to divert hundreds of billions of dollars to a missile defense system that doesn’t work much better than the missiles it’s supposed to shoot down. Moreover, the almost surreal international panic about the launch shows that the program still has diplomatic value, even if the military utility of a missile that takes weeks to assemble and fuel is extremely doubtful.

  18. Tom (History)

    Speaking of by-the-cookbook. From the KCNA website:

    “Nevertheless, the U.S., Japan and the south Korean puppets are raising a hue and cry over the quite legitimate satellite launch projected by the DPRK. Such behaviors can never be allowed as they are a wonton violation of the international law on free use of outer space and a smear campaign against the DPRK.”

    Now we’re violating their dumplings as well.

  19. thermopile

    I seriously wonder if other “outside” organizations are playing with the Norks. For instance, the CIA did it impressively with the Soviets’ trans-Siberian natural gas pipeline, secretly selling the Soviets tampered microchips that went into overdrive. The resulting explosion of their pipeline could be seen from outer space, as detailed in Tom Reed’s Book At The Abyss . The CIA did it again with putting those yellow dots into every color laser printer in the world.

    Which is not to underscore the difficulty to what North Korea has been trying to do. But to fizzle their attempted bomb in 2006? And this? To me, it suggests tampering.

    (However, I also would have expected “tampering” in the Iranian launch attempt, but the Iranians were successful. So maybe I’m just a conspiracy theorist.)

  20. M. Ahmadi-Nejad (History)

    The North Koreans should have rented space on an Iranian rocket.

  21. Allen Thomson (History)

    Jim Oberg said,

    > It was all camouflage, say. There was a value to instilling confusion in the outside world.

    While I’m generally an Occam’s Razor kind of guy, I agree that a certain amount of suspicion is appropriate when dealing with Mr. Kim and his minions. And deception is hardy a new concept in international affairs.

    Maybe a light-weight “analysis of competing hypotheses” exercise would be in order here. Hypothesis 1 would be “It really was an attempt to orbit a satellite (regardless of the launcher used). Hypothesis 2 would be “There was no attempt to orbit a satellite.” Evidence for and against each would be compiled and the results evaluated.


  22. Muskrat

    One serious question — what is NK’s ability to collect telemetry downrange? If it’s not good, how will they diagnose and or repair the mistakes? Did the last two operational fishing boats in the North Korean fleet get detailed to act as ground stations in the Western pacific?

    FAS says past telemetry was “quite limited” ( which seems odd for a system in development.

  23. MTC (History)

    In case the English language sources have not been publishing it yet, Japanese sources now indicate the splashdown of the second stage to have been within the DPRK-declared exclusion zone. See, for example, the maps appended to this morning’s report in the Yomiuri Shimbun.

    It is possible that the report of a second stage splashdown closer to Japan may have resulted from confusion between the splashdown point and the point where the missile disappeared off the screens of Japanese land-based radars.

  24. Shuyin

    I think that we are not looking at the bigger picture. The fact it is that phase one of the rocket launch perfectly. Is it me or is that a good simulation of short range ICBM to me.
    This is just a theory so feel free to shoot it down.
    What if NK was just trying to perfect their short range missile tech. The rest of it could have just been a complete decoy. That would explain why they are acting so stupid. What is easier? To try to make everyone believe you got into space or make everyone believe you are an incompetent idiot that is more amusing than an actual threat?

  25. Brian (History)

    Maybe just an issue of semantics but I keep hearing all the news outlets use the term “rocket”. However, I was under the impression that the Taepodong was a missile, which means it has a guidance system in it and that using the term rocket is actually incorrect. Are these two terms actually interchangeable and it really doesn’t matter anyway?

    Anyone able to clarify?

  26. XYZ

    Sascha LHX makes an excellent point that is often overlooked by both the media and the arms control community and blogs. Even today William Broad is referring to Iran as a “client state” of Iran, a patently ridiculous statement even if referring only to rocketry and David Sanger speaks of a “profitable” export in missiles to Iran, Pakistan, and Syria. When was the last time the DPRK actually exported any misisles? The DPRK’s continued failure in rocketry should lead to a re-evaluation of this common wisdom, particularly in the case of Iran and Pakistan. Pakistan has not needed help from the DPRK for at least a decade and the Ghauri is being replaced by the superior Shaheen. Not to mention that the DPRK has relied on Pakistani centrifuge technology. Similarly, Iran now seems to moved beyond the need for support from the DPRK and relies on some combination of indigenous and non-DPRK rocketry. I would guess that the DPRK stopped being a useful source of missile technology sometime in the early- to mid-1990s and that others have now moved beyond the relatively crude technology it was able to export to them in their time of need. It may be time for the accepted wisdom to be revised.


  27. Palloy (History)

    Have you bothered monitoring 470 MHz for the communications from the satellite ?

    Have you bothered monitoring the orbit “angle of inclination of 40.6 degrees at 490 km perigee and 1,426 km apogee. Its cycle is 104 minutes and 12 seconds.” ?

    No ? Well you are just taking the word of the US administration then aren’t you ? And they wouldn’t lie would they ? WMD ? Mission accomplished ?

    Are you seriously telling me that the Iranians can put an satellite into orbit and the North Koreans can’t – when it is the same technology ?

    Why is it OK for South Korea to launch a satellite (this coming summer, using KSLV-1 rocket) but its not OK for North Korea to race them to be first ?

    You are all so willing to be taken in by your own propaganda that you haven’t even stopped to think.

  28. John

    What is the possible range of that “new Taepodong”?

  29. Iraniandude (History)

    Everyone here keeps saying that the Iranian and North Korean programs are identical; if so, we must be getting help from the Allah factor

  30. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    I hate to break it to you, but yes — there are satellite observers to do look and listen for objects in orbit.

    In my post, I linked to that community of people. So, if anyone is guilty is making hasty conclusions based on their own propaganda, that would be you, Chief.

    As for your other questions, the Iranian and North Korean technologies are not “the same” — go back and read the Congressional testimony by Bob Walpole about the relationship between the Nodong and the Shahab. If you’ve read Geoff Forden’s posts carefully, you’ll notice that he has used photographic evidence to document the degree to which the Iranians have integrated North Korean technology into indigenous designs.

    (And, even if it were the same, the technology may not be as important as tacit knowledge and other factors.)

    As for why it is ok for South Korea to launch satellites but not North Korea, that has everything to do with UNSC resolutions. UNSC 1718 demands that Pyongyang “not conduct any further … launch of a ballistic missile” and decides “that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching…”

    That’s pretty straightforward.

  31. Palloy (History)

    Hi Jeffrey
    I have followed up all those links. The quotes are all from Northcom, CNN and BBC, who I was suggesting must be considered to be biased, under the circumstances.

    The only person at SatObs who sounded like they were actually looking said “nothing yet”, which doesn’t mean a lot. No one said they had listened on 470 MHz. So my questions still stand.

    It is splitting hairs to say the NK and Iranian rockets are not the same. There is evidence enough that they have collaborated on design work, so there is no reason why NK shouldn’t be able to do what Iran has done, based on the technology and design knowhow.

    The statement that NK has violated UNSC 1718 is a political judgement, not a legally proven case. All the US allies agree on it, but that is the way these games are played. If you were to ask Iran, Venezuela, Syria, Zimbabwe, and the rest of the US’s enemies, you would get a completely different picture. The real reason why it is OK for SK and not OK for NK is that SK is a puppet of the US, so can do no wrong.

    The point I am trying to make is that until a thorough search by independent observers has been undertaken, and UHF band scans kept up for however long (2 days, a week ?), it is hasty to assume that what Northcom says is right.

    At Globalsecurity it has been pointed out that the lack of a Lat-Long for the splashdown is not proof it didn’t happen, as it is likely the US monitoring is better than the NK monitoring, so why help them out with the data. I agree. But no more does it prove that it didn’t go into orbit. We are talking about a major propaganda coup here, so it would be just as important to Uncle Sam to spoil it as it would be for Uncle Kim to make it up.

    And I can’t see why everyone finds it so funny that the satellite is said to be broadcasting typically NK national music. If you were wanting to send out an unmistakeable signature, wouldn’t you choose your national music and put in on 470 MHz?


  32. Peter J. Brown (History)

    I am glad that Jeffrey reminded everyone that the technologies in use by Iran and NKorea are NOT the same, and this in turn raises questions about the presence of the Iranian team in NK at the time of the launch.

  33. Peter J. Brown (History)

    I forgot to post these questions again a moment ago —

    How exactly did NK continue tracking their missile far out over the Pacific? Does NK rely upon a land-based or shipboard tracking capability in the zone which lies well to the east of Japan?

    And does anyone know if there were any Chinese Yuanwang or Dongdiao missile tracking ships present in this zone during the launch?

  34. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    The Yomiuri quote has disappeared; it was:

    The missile appeared to have flown over Japan, with the first booster stage splashing down 280 kilometers off the coast of Akita Prefecture in the Sea of Japan and its second booster stage coming down 1,270 kilometers off the eastern coast of Japan in the Pacific Ocean, according to the government.

    MTC indicates the Japanese press is now indicating the splashdown of the second stage and the payload was within the exclusion zone.

    He wonders if it “is possible that the report of a second stage splashdown closer to Japan may have resulted from confusion between the splashdown point and the point where the missile disappeared off the screens of Japanese land-based radars.”

    I think this is worth looking into.

  35. Murray Anderson (History)

    The first place I saw the 1270 km from Japan mentioned was on Nasaspaceflight, which linked to a Japanese site showing a map giving 1270 km as the distance from Japan to the start of the second stage drop zone. This was plainly wrong, the distance is actually around 1270 miles. I think this is the source of the story about the second stage falling short. The original image seems to have disappeared, maybe I can find it in the browser cache when I go home tonight.
    Did anyone else notice this?

  36. Andy (History)


    Interesting argument, but I think there are a few things you’re not considering:

    1. First compare the history of NK and Northcom/USG sources for this kind of information. I think you’ll find that one has a very credible track record and one does not.

    2. Deception about something that is easily verifiable is completely counter-productive from a propaganda standpoint.

    3. Washington leaks like a sieve. I know from past personal experience that there are thousands of people in the US government who have access to data on launches like this. If the government was publicly lying it would be exposed in the NYT or WAPO within days if not hours.

    You make an assertion that it’s very important for the USG to spoil any propaganda coup. That is an unsupported assertion and it doesn’t make much sense either. If anything, the USG (or some portion of it) wishes the opposite in order to justify MDA spending.

    Finally, on bias, it is always important to evaluate source, but it it also important to consider information separate from source. The reasons for this should be obvious. There is bias in every human endeavor so claims of “bias” by some actors don’t mean much absent other evidence. Yes, the USG, CNN and BBC are all biased, just like every human-based organization is. I trust you are self-aware enough to realize that fact and realize that you’re at least as biased as Northcom, CNN and the BBC….

    There will be independent confirmation (or, in this case, a lack of confirmation), but for now there is nothing to suggest the US, Japanese, South Koreans and international press are lying about the failure of the TD02.

  37. Herr Doktor Professor Deth Vegetable (History)

    It is also worth noting that it is somewhat easier to reach orbit from the lattitude of Iran than it is North Korea. I mean, neither nation is PARTICULARLY far south, but it seems that North Korea’s launch site is about 8 degrees north of Iran’s.

  38. kme

    Palloy, it’s not likely that NORAD is lying, because any such lie would be exposed in short order.

  39. Tom Terrific (History)


  40. Palloy (History)


    32/34 Smolenskaya-Sennaya pl., 119200, Moscow G-200;
    tel.: (499) 244 4119, fax: (499) 244 4112
    e-mail:, web-address:

    April 5, 2009


    Russian MFA Spokesman Andrei Nesterenko Commentary on DPRK’s Launch of Artificial Earth Satellite into Low-Earth Orbit


    The DPRK sent an artificial Earth Satellite into a low-Earth orbit on the morning of April 5. According to Russian aerospace monitoring data, the launch trajectory did not pass over the territory of the Russian Federation. The parameters of the satellite’s orbit are being specified.

    The DPRK had informed the Russian side ahead of time about the launch.

    We call on all concerned states to show restraint in judgments and action in the current situation and to proceed from objective data on the nature of the DPRK launch.

    We intend to watch further developments attentively, remaining in close touch and holding consultations with all concerned sides.

  41. Noah (History)

    Hopefully this will show everyone that the most advanced hostile power is, in fact, over 70 years behind the U.S. in military technology, so we really don’t have to make so much of a fuss about everything.

    Thankfully, Gates seems to have figured that out:

    Military moves in new direction

  42. Tim Gulden (History)

    This post got a nice mention on the Rachel Maddow Show last night. The reference (complete with graphic) is at about 4:45 into the clip.

  43. The Pink One (History)

    Regarding DPRK tracking of the missile, the Joongang Ilbo reported that the DPRK sent a merchant vessel but it had engine problems and was unable to track it.

  44. salohcin (History)

    Both the missile splash down site and Italy are at 40 +/- degrees North ; not a coincidence maybe not ? Did the North Korean Missile cause the Italian Earth Quake ?

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