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By Song Sang-ho
SEOUL, May 31 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's botched launch of a "space launch vehicle" underlined both its technological difficulties and rising space ambitions in the face of the superior military intelligence capabilities of South Korea and the United States, analysts said Wednesday.
The North fired its new "Chollima-1" rocket carrying a military reconnaissance satellite, "Malligyong-1," but it crashed into the Yellow Sea due to the "abnormal starting" of the second-stage engine, according to its official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
The recalcitrant regime's first launch of such a rocket in more than seven years highlighted its steadfast focus on fulfilling its push to overcome technological weaknesses and bolster overall reconnaissance capabilities, the analysts said.
The North attributed the failure in the latest launch to the "low reliability and stability of the new engine system applied to the carrier rocket and the unstable character of the fuel used," the KCNA reported, in a rare public acknowledgement of such defects.
The KCNA mention of the rocket's "normal" flight until the separation of its first stage indicated defects stem from the second-stage propulsion system and rocket fuel -- elements critical to placing a satellite into orbit.
Chang Young-keun, a rocket expert at the Korea Aerospace University, said the second-stage engine might have failed in its ignition and combustion process following the first-stage separation.
The North's space rocket is thought to be equipped with the Paektusan liquid-fuel engine modeled after the Soviet-made RD-250 twin engine, analysts said.
Its first and second stages could carry a dual-chamber Paektusan engine with a thrust of 160 ton and a single chamber one, respectively, while the third stage may be equipped with two small liquid-fuel engines, they said.
The operation of these engines requires liquid fuel as well as oxidizer. Particularly, the requirement to store liquid oxygen at an ultralow temperature could have been a challenge for the North.
It remains unclear whether the North could follow through on its professed plan to overcome all defects and conduct another space rocket launch "as soon as possible."
If the past is any guide, Pyongyang unsuccessfully launched a satellite-carrying rocket in April 2012 and conducted a new launch eight months later. Some observers raised the possibility that it could launch another rocket earlier than expected, given the relatively fast pace of its weapons development projects.
The North's push to run a military spy satellite came as it seeks to bolster its overall intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, as it is far behind the South and the U.S. that boast their combined leading-edge assets based in all security domains, including air, sea, land and outer space.
"While (North Korean leader Kim Jong-un) has identified space launch as an important capability for North Korea, the ROK is demonstrating greater capability than that of North Korea, which is yet another example of South Korean superiority -- something that Kim fears from an internal political perspective," Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, told Yonhap News Agency via email.
ROK stands for South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.
On Tuesday, Ri Pyong-chol, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the North's ruling Worker's Party of Korea, stressed the need to secure reconnaissance assets as he made the rocket launch plan official.
The spy satellite is "indispensable to tracking, monitoring, discriminating, controlling and coping with in advance in real time the dangerous military acts" of the U.S. and South Korea, Ri said in a statement carried by the KCNA.
Nam Chang-hee, professor of international politics at Inha University, said the North's drive to secure military satellites is only a "natural" step to close the gap in the ISR capabilities with the allies.
"When they don't have such an asset that serves as an 'eye' in their strike operations, they may make the coordinates and strike at them," Nam said. "But they cannot attack a moving target, like an aircraft carrier floating at sea."
Outside critics have long accused the North of using a space rocket launch as a pretext to advance its ballistic missile technology in breach of U.N. Security Council sanctions. But experts largely agreed the latest launch appears designed to send a satellite into orbit.
"It may not be a cover for a long-range rocket test, as it might not need any rationale for a missile launch, given that North Korea fired one missile after another without giving any rationale in recent years," Park Won-gon, professor of North Korea studies at Ewha Womans University, said.
The North unveiled its push for the military spy satellite as part of key defense projects announced at the eighth congress of its ruling party in early 2021. They include developing a "super-large" nuclear warhead and an intercontinental ballistic missile using an "underground or ground solid-fuel engine."
Wednesday's launch highlighted that the North is forging ahead with those projects despite international criticism that it is splurging its scarce national resources on developing weapons at the expense of people's livelihoods.
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