North Korea on Sunday gave foreign journalists a rare glimpse of what it claims is a space rocket sitting on its launch pad in Tongchang-ri, North Pyongan Province. Experts here said the latest rocket appears to be the same as a long-range missile that was launched in April of 2009, which had a range of at least 6,700 km, but a more advanced version.
In 2009, the North also claimed the missile was a space rocket designed to put a science satellite into orbit. It consisted of three stages: a primary booster made of four Rodong missile boosters, a second stage using a remodeled Rodong missile, and a third stage solid-fuel booster.
An official at the South's Korea Aerospace Research Institute said, "Although it appears to be the same length or slightly shorter than the one launched in 2009 and the diameter is wider, it is definitely the same type of long-range missile." North Korea did not reveal data about the rocket in 2009, but South Korean authorities estimated that it was 32 m long and between 2.0 and 2.2 m in diameter. North Korea said the rocket it plans to launch this time is 30 m long and 2.5 m in diameter. This means the booster may have been slightly improved.
One expert at a government-run research institute here said, "We need to focus on North Korea's announcement that the rocket weighs 92 tons." The 2009 rocket is estimated to have weighed 79 tons. "In 2009, North Korea succeeded in separating the second and third stage boosters of the rocket, but failed to put a satellite into orbit," the expert added. "This may have been due to a lack of thrust, so they probably mounted a more powerful engine this time and put in more liquid fuel."
Experts believe the 2009 test showed that the North is close to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Pyongyang announced that the new rocket will fall around 2,500 km from the launch pad, around 1,300 km short of where the previous rocket landed. A government source here said, "Rather than increasing the maximum range, North Korea seems to have focused on improving the performance of the rocket to put a satellite into orbit, so that it has some justification for launching a long-range missile."
The launch pad also shows improvements. Standing 50 m high, the launch tower is 1.5 times higher than the one at the missile facility in Musudan-ri, North Hamgyong Province, and there are several large vertical supports that make it easier to assemble and service rockets in a vertical position. The mobile platform holding the rocket is also a new piece of equipment. Jang Myong-Jin, the head of the North Korean space center in Tongchang-ri said, "In the future, we will be able to put up to a 400 ton payload into space. We built a large launch pad for that purpose."