North Korea Tests New Rocket Engine: An Advancing Space Launch Programme?

North Korea has conducted a static ground test of what it bills as a new more powerful rocket engine.

North Korea claims that the engine is indigenously designed and developed and has higher thrust than those tested hitherto.

A lot of the media reports and commentary thus far have focused on what implications this has for Pyongyang’s long range ballistic missile programme, but we do tend to forget at times such as this that North Korea also has a space programme.

It would be wrong, therefore, to automatically assume that the static rocket engine test was part of its long range missile programme. Maybe, but then again maybe not. One interesting thing, in that regard, to note is that after the Pukguksong-2 (KN 11 Mod 1), which is sold fuelled, MRBM test North Korea announced that it was switching to solid fuelled engines for its longer range missile programme, following a string of failures with the liquid fuelled Musudan MRBM.

One should not, then, simply assume that the static rocket engine test was a test of an ICBM engine. The North Korean news agency statement, linked above, following the test did emphasise the space programme angle.

The specifics of the engine, especially the propellants, are unknown to use given the current paucity of data and quality of imagery, but speculation has focused on the possibility that the engine test was of a second stage ICBM engine. It is argued that the engine is smaller than that static tested in April 2016, thus likely a second stage ICBM engine.

The engine just tested has vernier engines.

Let me engage in some *errant speculation*, subject to recall as more detailed information emerges.

After a similar static engine test in 2016 North Korea had stated that a key objective of its space programme is the placement of a satellite into geosynchronous orbit. Thus far North Korea had successfully placed two satellites, using the Unha 3 Space Launch Vehicle, into low earth sun synchronous orbits.

Perhaps North Korea is developing engines with greater thrust to increase the delta v of an advancing space launch vehicle programme? Better to say, perhaps, that what we saw was the static engine test of a second stage space launch vehicle engine?

Now North Korea policy is under review by the Trump administration. Jumping to conclusions, based on unsubstantiated premises, reporting in this context is dangerous, because it creates an atmosphere of belligerent North Korean malfeasance and thus pressure for tougher, more gung-ho, approaches to policy which can lead to conflict on the Korean peninsula.

In this respect you see two points often made that should not go unchallenged. Firstly, everything North Korea does is a “test” of Trump implying that he dare not go wobbly, to borrow the Thatcherite expression, lest he seen to be weak and secondly anything rocket related is part and parcel of North Korea’s long range ballistic missile programme.

These two points are by no means established ones, and they are often simply asserted.

This is sloppy reporting, but it is sloppy reporting pushing policy in a confrontational, rather than diplomatic, direction.

We’ve seen that before.

Just one final note. The North Korean news agency report, citing Kim Jong Un, stated that the static engine test dispenses with the “dogmatism, conservatism and formalism left in the field of rocket industry and the dependence on the technology of other countries.”

Is that reference to conservatism an implicit criticism of Kim Jong Il by Kim Jong Un?

[Image 1: Static engine test 2017]
[Image 2: Static engine test 2016]