The first stage of a North Korean three-stage rocket to be launched next month is expected to land around 140 km off the coast of Byeonsan in the West Sea, raising the question how it is to be retrieved. The first stage will likely separate at an altitude of 250 to 300 km and fall at a site around 450 km from the launch pad in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province.
"The first stage will drop faster than the speed of sound, and most of it will burn up during the descent, but some debris could fall into the ocean," a government source here said. He added the South "would be able to gain detailed information about North Korea's long-range missile by analyzing the debris."
South Korean and U.S. officials believe the relatively shallow waters of the West Sea will make it easier to recover pieces of the first stage. The average depth of the West Sea is around 40 m and the South Korean and U.S. navies have the technology to locate and recover the debris there.
South Korea and the U.S. apparently plan to deploy spy satellites, high-tech surveillance aircraft and Aegis destroyers to pinpoint the location where the first stage will land. The South Korean Navy has two Aegis-class destroyers capable of tracking North Korean ballistic missiles from 1,000 km away. Torpedo search vessels equipped with the latest sonar equipment, as well as special navy divers will also be deployed to search for debris.
Some fear that the rocket could malfunction and crash into South Korean waters or on land. But experts say the North will blow up the rocket if it strays off course, either with remote-controlled systems from Tongchang-ri or by using explosives mounted on the rocket. In an emergency, the government plans to warn aircraft and ships beforehand.
South Korea has only PAC-2 Patriot missiles whose capacity is too limited to shoot down long-range North Korean missiles or rockets.