The Unha-3 Launch Day Part Deux: From the Ground and from the Sky


North Korea achieved its first success in launching a satellite into orbit on December 12, 2012. To date, North Korean media have carried photographs and video clips, both prior to and during the launch, of the General Satellite Control Center (GSCC) near Pyongyang as well as the Sohae launch site itself.  In addition, DigitalGlobe, a commercial satellite company, covered the entire Sohae launch complex with imagery about an hour after the launch.


The first prelaunch look at the Sohae launch pad appears in photographs carried by KCNA late on December 13th, of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s visit to the GSCC early on the morning of the previous day. North Korean media reports said that Kim gave the order to launch at 8 am, and then visited the GSCC an hour later. That timing could match one of the KCNA photographs showing Kim at the GSCC. Behind Kim, who is talking to several North Korean officials including his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, is a large center screen showing what is presumably a live feed from a video camera at the launch pad. It shows the tower completely closed and covered around the Unha-3 rocket. If Kim didn’t arrive at the GSCC until 9 am, which means the tower was covered until less than an hour before launch. It might be possible, but getting the pad ready for a launch in about 49 minutes would be tight.  Another possibility was that the video was taken earlier and displayed on the screen. Figure 1 shows Kim and the gantry in the background.

Figure 1. Kim Jong Un at the General Satellite Control Center early in the morning of December 12.

Photo: KCNA, Annotation: Nick Hansen

Kim was reported by North Korean media to have arrived at the GSCC with only two other members of the leadership—Jang Song Thaek and Pak To Chun, party secretary for munitions. The absence of Ju Kyu Chang, director of the Central Committee’s Machine Building Industry, from his entourage is curious since Ju is much more intimately connected with the North’s missile industry than Pak. All of the personnel at the GSCC and at Sohae are wearing what appears to be a new uniform for launch personnel—khaki garb that gives the impression of a slightly more military and less scientific endeavor than in the past. Even Jang and Pak are in that garb, presumably designed to signal their direct participation in some stage of the operation.

The single prelaunch photo (shown from a KCNA photo taken off the large screen at the GSCC) was taken from a camera position at the instrumentation site looking down on the pad on an azimuth of about 329 degrees. Based on the azimuth of the shadows, this video was probably shot about an hour or less before 9:49 local launch time, possibly not long after Kim’s 9 am arrival at the GSCC. It shows the upper two work platforms folded back against the gantry tower revealing the rocket’s 2nd and 3rd stages and payload shroud. Work was progressing on folding back the lower two work platforms. There were three or four vehicles and 8 to 10 people on the pad. Figure 2 shows this prelaunch activity.

Figure 2. Prelaunch activities at the Sohae launch pad.

Photo: KCNA, Annotation: Nick Hansen


The launch of the Unha-3 rocket was covered by the North Korean media. One of these pictures was presumably a live feed on the large screen at the GSCC; the photo is looking down on the pad from the instrumentation site. The launch occurred at about 9:49:47 local time (see figure 3). The Unha-3 rocket is about five meters off the launch stand. The sides have been removed from the launch stand as the flame is entering the opening into the flame trench. Also, a vehicle and trailer have been left on the pad close to the launch stand.

Figure 3. Video of the Unha-3 just after ignition.

Photo: KCNA, Annotation: Nick Hansen

Post Launch

Commercial satellite imagery from DigitalGlobe covered the Sohae site 54 minutes after the rocket was launched. Since imagery was not taken until five hours after the failed launch in April, these photos give us a unique glimpse of the immediate aftermath of a rocket test.

Launch Pad

On both occasions, all the work platforms on the gantry were folded back against the tower. While there was no activity seen on the pad in April five hours after the launch, in December, there were three small vehicles and objects at the base of the gantry tower. In addition, the vehicle and trailer in the launch video were already gone and several people were on the pad.  Moreover, there is clearly melted snow in front of the flame trench (see figure 4).

Figure 4. The Sohae launch pad, less than an hour after the launch.

Image © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Instrumentation Site

The post-launch imagery also revealed personnel at the instrumentation site leaving in three vehicles heading down the mountain. There was a bus parked at the end of the road probably to take them to the support area. As in April, the instrumentation equipment was left at the site, to be completely dismantled and removed later (see figure 5).

Figure 5. Instrumentation site.

Image © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Rail Station

Activity was greatest both after the April and now December launch at the rail station with approximately thirteen vehicles on each date (see figure 6).

Figure 6. Sohae rail station shortly after the April and December launches.

Image © 2012 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Other Activities

The VIP and guest accommodations are active with six vehicles in the parking areas. The snow was melted on the roofs of the two hotels indicating they were two of the few heated buildings at the Sohae complex. The observation building’s roof was also snow free indicating this may have been where guests observed the launch.


Once the go ahead was given, the test proceeded according to a pre-planned script, which resulted in a successful launch at 09:49:47 local time on December 12, 2012. On the launch day, Kim Jong Un spent several hours at the satellite control center. After it was clear the launch was a success, he congratulated the engineers at the center and probably at the Sohae launch complex by phone. According to North Korean media, these scientists (most of them reportedly in their 30s and 40s) are now in Pyongyang at Kim’s invitation where they attended several events including the opening of the renovated Kumsusan Memorial Palace on the first anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death.

This article was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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