North Korea’s Big New Rocket Engine: What Does the Latest Engine Test Mean?

The New York Times carries an article on North Korea’s recent stationary test of a new engine for its space programme, which, of course, has implications for ballistic missile development. The article emphasises possible North Korean cooperation with Iran, which definitely ought to be deconstructed.

The North states that it seeks to develop a rocket for launching a satellite into geostationary orbit.

The new engine test represents a kind of coming out party for the North Koreans. For a long time, the dominant assumption, even by yours truly, was that there existed inherent limitations to the North’s programme because it was based on extrapolations from Scud technology, which necessarily is a finite process.

The first thing to note is that assumption no longer holds, given this test and the test of the KN-11 solid fuelled sea launched ballistic missile. This is pretty significant.

38North reports that (John Schilling), of the stationary test of the space launch engine,

We can tell that the engine is substantially larger and more powerful than anything North Korea has tested before, even than the new ICBM engine tested in April, and the thrust may well be in the range of 160,000 pounds or 80,000 kilograms force.

David Wright, long the key analyst in the public domain of North Korea’s space and missile programmes, also observes

The Nodong engine is a scaled-up version of the Soviet Scud engine, and uses Scud-level propellants rather than more powerful propellants that are typically used in more modern rockets. However, the color of the flame coming from the new engine in photos of the test strongly suggests this engine does not use Scud propellant, but appears to use a more advanced propellant like UDMH or MMH. Using these propellants could increase the capability of the rocket since they can produce higher thrust per mass of propellant

There are a number of issues that have been the focus of discussion since the test; What does this mean? What capabilities do the North Koreans have? Is Iran cooperating with North Korea to develop space launch and missile capabilities?

Now according to The New York Times one thing that this, and other advanced North Korean capabilities, means is that the North could have a nuclear armed ICBM within five years

By most unclassified estimates, it will take North Korea perhaps five years to marry its missile advances with a weapon small enough and strong enough to survive the stresses of re-entering the atmosphere atop an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Those of who have been in this game long enough, or who have a good memory for these things, know that five years in this context is a magic number. That is a timeframe coming straight out of the (in)famous Rumsfeld Commission Report on the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States

A new strategic environment now gives emerging ballistic missile powers the capacity, through a combination of domestic development and foreign assistance, to acquire the means to strike the U.S. within about five years of a decision to acquire such a capability (10 years in the case of Iraq)

The Rumsfeld Commission Report was written in 1998. Be cautious here, I say.

Wright points out that if North Korea seeks to place satellites into geostationary orbit it would need an SLV much like China’s old Long March-3, which gave Beijing an ICBM capability and which could also, thereby, give Pyongyang an ICBM capability. Wright argues that the increasing size of the North’s launch gantry is suggestive of an LM-3 type SLV

North Korea conducted its two Unha satellite launches from its Sohae launch facility. It originally built a gantry tower, which holds the missile prior to launch, that was about 40 m tall. That was enough to use with the Unha, which is about 29 m tall, and a rocket the size of the LM-2 or DF-5, which are about 32 m tall.
But by 2014 North Korea had done considerable construction at the launch site, including increasing the height of the gantry to about 55 m—able to accommodate a 50-m rocket. This would be needed for a launcher similar to the LM-3, which is 43 m tall. Unless Pyongyang was interested in accommodating a rocket with that capability, it would not need a taller gantry

It has been pointed out that clustering four engines of the type just tested would give the North an ICBM capability, although Pyongyang (also Tehran) does not currently have the capacity to supply four engine chambers with the one fuel pump. This is important for strategic planners as clustering four engines with four fuel pumps lowers damage expectancy (given the higher likelihood of failure), so the one fuel pump would be preferable.

I will come back to what the engine test, and much else besides, means later.

One big focus of inquiry, particularly featured in The New York Times article is the question of cooperation between Iran and North Korea

An intelligence finding that the United States quietly made public in January suggests that the development of the North’s big engine, which it claims produces 80 tons of thrust, may be part of a joint partnership with Iran. A Treasury Department announcement of sanctions against Iranian officials and engineers named two who had “traveled to North Korea to work on an 80-ton rocket booster being developed by the North Korean government.”

38North carries a superb analysis, Michael Melleman, that runs counter to this view. The analysis points out

Those arguing that Iran and North Korea are cooperating on missile development cite four observations. Two of them center on the similarities in the evolutionary versions of Pyongyang’s Nodong missiles and Tehran’s Shahab-3 and Ghadr systems. The third observation focuses on the solid-propellant technology recently used by North Korea to propel its submarine-launched ballistic missile, the KN-11, which some argue is identical to that employed by Iran’s two-stage, medium-range Sajjil missile. The fourth, and most often citied observation, and the one said to be corroborated by official US government sanctions, claims that Tehran and Pyongyang are cooperating on the development of large rockets used to loft satellites into orbit.

The article goes on to dissect each of these four claims with good detail. I will focus here on the last, as this forms the core of the case for Iran-North Korean cooperation promoted by The New York Times

The most obvious difference, according to 38North, is that it is readily apparent that Iran and the North have different design philosophies

The most obvious difference is that the two North Korean SLVs operate using three stages, whereas Iran’s two SLVs are two-stage systems. This likely reflects the more conservative design approach taken by North Korea, where until late-2015, engineers had limited experience developing new missiles and launchers

Furthermore, when you look at the nitty gritty of the steering engines you discern design divergence

The Unha and Simorgh both employ four small engines to steer the first stage. Arguably, this feature suggests some level of design cooperation. However, beyond the use of four small engines, the two designs diverge. Each steering engine of the Unha receives its propellant from the turbo-pump of an adjacent Nodong engine by tapping into the fuel and oxidizer lines of the nearby engine and diverting a small portion of the flow. In other words, each Nodong turbo-pump feeds a Nodong engine and a steering engine. Iranian engineers, on the other hand, adopted a different design for the Simorgh. All four steering engines of the Simorgh are supplied propellant by a single Scud-engine turbo-pump assembly placed at the center of the Nodong engine cluster. The Iranian design delivers up to 13 tons of additional thrust compared to the Unha.

If the North and Iran are cooperating on design and development, why would Kim Jong-Un forgo 13 tonnes of additional thrust?

The allegations regarding Iran come at a critical time for the Iran nuclear non proliferation deal. The Iranian supreme leader has stated that the US is not fulfilling its end of the bargain, whilst the US has dismissed these allegations. It would be a pity if potentially unfounded analyses of North-Iranian cooperation were to be, partly, used to scuttle the nuclear non proliferation deal.

The North is watching how this deal goes; if it collapses they might, if they haven’t already, conclude that a similar deal with the US is fruitless. So all speed ahead for its strategic programmes,it would be.

The New York Times is making much of North Korean statements regarding a moon shot. The new engine, coupled to a suitable SLV, would not be able to send a lunar probe to the surface of the moon but it could send one into moon orbit, however there are other aspects of a viable space programme that the North needs to master to achieve this more limited objective. This is an aspirational goal.

The more immediate goal, taking the North’s communique after the rocket test seriously, is to place a satellite into geostationary orbit. Focusing on the aspiration at the expense of the immediate is a way to stress the fantastical nature of the North’s space programme, thus implicitly supporting the thesis that the rocket engine test is really the test of a missile engine.

What does this all mean? Some have speculated that the North might want to build silo based ICBMs. That the North wants a viable strategic triad like other more established nuclear powers. This could be the case.

But I would add one more into the speculative semantic mix. Think of the 50s chic that we associate with the North; the slicked back Fonzie style hair and much else besides. The North is doing what we did back then; getting all gooey about bombs, big bombs, and missiles and rockets and stuff.

North Korea is a highly patrimonial regime governed by a highly autarkic brand of Marxist ideology. Outside hostility suits the patrimonial elite, as under the pretext of security they are able to justify their continued rule. The North’s strategic and space programmes are wrapped up under an aura that stresses modernity. Given outside economic sanctions, and its own autarkic political economy, a developing military-industrial complex is a good way to boost economic growth and technological innovation under the veneer of security, as this nicely boosts GDP a wee bit whilst at the same time reinforcing the patrimonial nature of the regime.

Just like in the Soviet Union and the US back in the day a growing military-industrial complex acts as a type of military Keynesianism that subsidises technological innovation under the pretext of security.

The best way to break that dynamic is to pursue something like Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine policy of engagement with the North.

Take away the pretext what then for the patrimonial regime?