Commentary | Space Programs of North Korea, Iran: Covert Twins?

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At their early stages, the space programs of the major powers were little more than adjuncts to their ballistic missile programs. Initially they were prestige programs, aimed to advertise nations’ ballistic missile prowess to their Cold War opponents as well as their home audiences. 

As the main benefit, they helped to advance the art of multistage, global-range rocketry. Somewhat marginally they also advanced science — the case of the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts by the embryonic U.S. space program of the late 1950s is a case in point. 

Only when the art of satellite orbiting was mastered with confidence (as measured by the growing reliability and decreasing failure rate) did space programs mature into what they are today: mainstays of global communication and commerce, indispensable military assets for national reconnaissance and vehicles of planetary exploration. 

Later newcomers to the space launch scene followed the same evolutionary pattern, with prestige programs morphing into military, commercial and scientific space. Both China’s and India’s space programs are prime examples of similar evolutionary chains. 

The only two space programs that seem to be stuck in their embryonic “prestige” stage are those of North Korea and Iran — perhaps more so in the first than the latter. 

Both aimed mainly to display their regime prowess while acquiring proficiency in multistage rocket technology. However, there are several noticeable differences in their respective evolutions and tempos. 

Iran’s space ambitions were first revealed to the world when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami was photographed inspecting a model space launch vehicle at a 1998 Tehran exposition. This was obviously a modified Shahab 3, itself newly revealed at the time, but it was not clear from the image how many stages it consisted of. The program then vanished from view for several years. Iran’s establishment of a national space agency drew scant attention. 

The program surfaced again in 2007 with the much-ballyhooed launch of a “space probe” called Kavoshgar, which looked exactly like a Shahab 3 with a different color scheme. Although it flew erratically, shedding pieces of itself during its boost and ending up with a huge explosion in the distant horizon, the Kavoshgar flight was hailed as a great success by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It turned out the Iranians launched concurrently a small sounding rocket by the same name, which indeed reached space and was successfully parachuted down. 

Thus the world learned that Iran’s space program had branched into two parallel and complementary efforts. One effort was aimed to achieve heavy Earth orbiting capability with a multistage launch vehicle while the second and parallel effort aimed to develop the technologies for sustaining Iranian astronauts in space.  

Both efforts are vigorously pursued with a varying degree of success. Following a failed space launch in August 2008, Iran’s Safir launch vehicle successfully orbited three small satellites in 2009, 2011 and 2012. This was followed by a string of at least three failures, which stopped the launching schedule for a protracted period, presumably for failure analysis and corrections. 

In parallel, Iran displayed a mockup of its next-generation launch vehicle, the giant two-stage Simorgh, which is yet to see its first launch. While the launch tower of the 80-metric-ton Simorgh is being completed in Iran’s current space port of Semnan, an even larger launch site is being constructed in Sharoud, about 185 kilometers to the east. The scale of the Sharoud facility is almost mind-boggling with a concrete apron nearly 2 meters thick, 200 meters long and 135 meters wide, probably to serve for an enormous third-generation Iranian launch vehicle yet to be unveiled. 

Concurrently, Iran is progressing steadily toward perfecting a life-support system for humans in space. This is being achieved by ever more complex suborbital space launches using rockets and ballistic missile stages with recoverable capsules. From launching and recovering simple life forms such as worms, Iran graduated into a successful launch and recovery of a live monkey in December 2013. 

Compared with Iran’s ambitious yet sensible approach to its space program, that of North Korea is nothing if not bizarre. North Korea made its first attempt to orbit a satellite in 1998 via the three-stage Paektusan launch vehicle cobbled from Nodong and Scud motors. The fist two stages of that rocket worked properly, but a failure in the third stage aborted the mission. Engineering-wise, it would have made sense for the North Koreans to keep on perfecting the Paektusan and work out its faults, launch by launch, until it achieved acceptable reliability. Surprisingly, what they did was anything but. Instead, and after more than a decade-long hiatus, they unveiled a 90-ton, three-stage giant of their own dubbed Unha (Galaxy), which bore no relation to its more sensible predecessor. To no one’s surprise, the new monster failed in its first two launches. A third launch in December 2012 at last managed to put a small satellite in a wobbly, short-lived Earth orbit. In the choreographed jubilation over this momentous event, the North Koreans revealed their intention to construct an even larger launch vehicle dubbed Unha-9 at some unspecified date. 

On the face of it, nothing could be more different than the Iranian and North Korean space programs. In contrast to Iran’s step-by-step progress along the learning curve, the North Korean program is quirky, the contrary to good engineering practice. Where the Iranians exhibit patience and a long-term view, the North Korean regime seems to be in a hurry for immediate gratification in its quest for prestige. Yet closer examination reveals some common features and hints of cooperation between the two programs. 

Both countries employ similar rocket motors for missile and launch vehicle programs, based on the original Scud motor, its larger Nodong derivative and the steering rockets of the North Korean BM25, an enlarged version of the venerable Soviet submarine-launched SSN6. The space launchers of North Korea and Iran use various permutations of the same rocket motors. Moreover, the Iranian giant Simorgh and its North Korean equivalent Unha share a base diameter of 2.4 meters and employ similar quartets of Nodong rockets for first-stage propulsion with smaller steering rockets for control. While there is no direct evidence of shared development, the indirect evidence is quite compelling. 

So if the two countries are sharing their launch vehicle building block development, why don’t they share the same program and risk management approach? Perhaps the key to this riddle is the synergy between the space and ballistic missile programs in each country. 

In April 2012, North Korea first unveiled what seems to be a mobile ICBM, carried on a huge eight-axle vehicle. Its base diameter is controversial, but seems to be close if not identical to that of the Unha launch vehicle. If so, this could explain the North Koreans’ impatience: They urgently needed the giant space launcher to qualify the propulsion system of their prospective ICBM. In this they were successful: Out of the first three launched, the first stage worked properly at least twice, probably providing the North Koreans with the data they needed to qualify the ICBM first-stage propulsion system. 

Iran is obviously in no such hurry. In contrast to North Korea — a declared nuclear power that explicitly threatens the U.S. with ICBMs — Iran finds it more politically expedient to deny both nuclear and ICBM ambitions. Thus Iran can take the long view and build its second-generation launch vehicle in relative leisure.  

This does not necessarily mean that Iran is forgoing ICBM capability. With the obvious synergy between the two countries, the Iranian and North Korean missile and space programs can complement each other. It was politically inexpedient for North Korea to test its Japan-range Nodong from its own shores, so Iran did the testing of the practically identical Shahab 3 in its own test range. 

Currently, it is politically inexpedient for Iran to show an overt ICBM ambition — yet if push came to shove, it could acquire the North Korean road mobile ICBM, which can be survivably based in its own rugged mountain areas. 

Iran’s and North Korea’s space programs are first and foremost regime glorification programs but serve at the same time to advance their ballistic missile ambitions. Moreover, they exhibit shared legacy and perhaps shared ambitions. It would be wise to avoid the trap of “peaceful space programs” in both cases.   

   

Uzi Rubin was the first director of the Israel Missile Defense Organization and is currently an international consultant on missile defense.