North Korea’s initial launch on May 31 of the new “Chollima-1” space launch vehicle (SLV), carrying the new “Malligyong-1” military reconnaissance satellite, was unsuccessful; the second stage booster apparently failed to ignite. Based on photos of the launch released in North Korean media, the first stage of the new SLV is based on the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The second and third stages appear to be optimized for space launch, with new engines and apparently differences in propellant. The cause of the failure is unknown, but South Korean authorities are working to recover the second and third stages, and perhaps even the payload, from the Yellow Sea, which would shed more light on their capabilities.
The SLV was launched from a new pad at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station built in just over a month, underscoring the political impetus of the launch and the overall satellite program. Pyongyang has pledged to conduct another reconnaissance satellite launch as soon as possible, which could take months from a technical standpoint, but could also occur sooner if the regime has political reasons to do so.
Based on previous statements the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) has made about its satellite ambitions, we can expect multiple launches over the next several years once the Chollima-1’s problems are resolved, if North Korea can keep up production of reliable satellites within the SLV’s payload capability. The regime’s plans for networks of reconnaissance, weather, earth observation, and communication satellites also make it likely that a larger SLV is in development, as suggested by modifications since March 2022 at the original Sohae launch pad.
Information to Date
On May 31, North Korea announced it had conducted the first launch of a “new-type” SLV, the “Chollima-1,” from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on the country’s northwest coast. (Chollima is a mythological horse “synonymous with great speed and progress in the DPRK.”) The SLV was reportedly carrying the “military reconnaissance satellite, ‘Malligyong (telescope)-1.’” According to the announcement, the SLV failed “after losing thrust due to the abnormal starting of the second-stage engine after the separation of the first stage during the normal flight.” That failure was attributed to “the low reliability and stability of the new-type engine system applied to carrier rocket ‘Chollima-1’ and the unstable character of the fuel used.” The National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), North Korea’s space agency, undertook to “thoroughly investigate the serious defects revealed in the satellite launch, take urgent scientific and technological measures to overcome them and conduct the second launch as soon as possible through various part tests.”
South Korea confirmed the timing and location of the failed launch and released photographs of a 15-meter portion of the booster found in the Yellow Sea about 270 kilometers off its west coast. The following day, the North released two photographs showing what appeared to be a three-stage SLV with a large payload fairing, rising above a newly constructed launch pad at Sohae.
A new SLV. The Chollima-1 is, indeed, a new type of SLV that is distinct from its ICBMs, although, as noted below, its first stage is based on the Hwasong (HS)-17 ICBM. The new SLV appeared to have been depicted in a blurred-over image of a display seen during Kim Jong Un’s visit to NADA in April. The upper stages probably have been designed for long-burning, low-thrust flight to maximize the ability to put a satellite into orbit and limit unnecessary vibration effects on a satellite payload.
An ICBM-based first stage. The nature of the exhaust plume from the first stage indicated the use of liquid propellants, and the first-stage engines appeared to be the same type used on the HS-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) and HS-15 and HS-17 ICBMs. According to one analyst, the North Korean photos indicate the first stage uses the engines in the same configuration as the HS-17 (two twin-chambered rocket engines, for a total of four rocket nozzles), and the overall SLV is about 29 meters long (including nozzles). The HS-17 has the most powerful North Korean booster seen to date, and even in an ICBM configuration should be able to put about 400 kilograms into the 500-km orbit apparently intended on May 31, compared to about 200 kg for the previous Unha (Taepodong-2) SLV. Differences in the opacity of the rocket plume from previous HS-12/-15/-17 launches seen in the North Korean photographs, and post-launch imagery of the launch pad showing a light gray residue apparently deposited by the first-stage burn, suggest the first-stage propellants may have been modified in some way.
New upper stages are the source of failure. Unlike the continuous-diameter two-stage HS-17, the Chollima-1 uses a second and third stage with a smaller diameter than the first. Assuming the Chollima-1’s first stage is the same diameter as the HS-17 (about 2.6 meters), this same analyst estimates the two upper stages to each be about 2.1 meters in diameter—in between the HS-12 IRBM (1.65 meters) and HS-15 ICBM (about 2.25 meters) and thus further consistent with the use of a “new-type engine system” as claimed by North Korea.
The 15-meter booster portion found by South Korea is consistent with the estimated combined length of the Chollima-1’s second and third stages, suggesting the “abnormal starting of the second-stage engine” also resulted in the third stage failing to separate. The failure of the SLV’s second stage, as reported in North Korean media, supports the idea that it contained a new-type engine, which would carry a higher risk of failure than the relatively well-proven ballistic missile engines used in the first stage. Based on the photos of the booster portion found by South Korea and its location relative to the danger areas announced by the North Koreans prior to launch, the second stage does not appear to have ignited at all.
The North Korean coverage also mentioned “the unstable character of the fuel used” in conjunction with the “new-type engine system,” presumably in the second stage. It is unclear what propellants were used in the Chollima-1’s upper stages or what “unstable character” they possessed that might have contributed to the failure. South Korea will hopefully be able to answer these kinds of questions once it recovers and analyzes the launch debris.
Payload details unclear. We do not know how much the Malligyong-1 satellite weighed or how capable its imaging system was. A satellite seen in photographs of Kim Jong Un’s May 16 visit to NADA to inspect the “military reconnaissance satellite No. 1,” said to be “ready for loading after undergoing the final general assembly check and space environment test,” was estimated to have dimensions of some 1.5 by 1.2 by 0.6 meters and to weigh between 200 and 500 kilograms.
We also do not know if the SLV’s third stage was intended to boost the satellite into its final orbit or if the payload also included an apogee motor (or “kick motor”) for that purpose; the weight of any such motor is unknown. The failure of the Chollima-1 after the first stage operation deprived us of important information on how much payload the SLV is capable of putting into orbit. It remains possible that South Korea will locate the remains of the payload.
Satellite launching is a priority, but a second-tier one. Satellite launches are apparently an important enough objective, both politically and substantively, for North Korea to devote the resources necessary to develop an optimized SLV. But the seven-year hiatus between space launches, during which Pyongyang has launched scores of ballistic missiles, including four new types of ICBM, indicates space takes a distinct back seat to the ballistic missile force. To the extent it had used SLV launches in the past as a stalking horse for ICBM development, such an artifice is no longer necessary, given Pyongyang’s open testing of ICBMs since 2017.
Political motivations are paramount. North Korea clearly has good substantive reasons to possess reconnaissance satellites, as well as the weather, earth observation and communication satellites Kim Jong Un has mentioned seeking. But Kim has also noted space as “a demonstration of the overall national power” and has gone out of his way to associate himself with the North’s space program and use it as a source of national prestige and both domestic and international propaganda.
The importance of political motivations was clearly shown in the circumstances leading up to the Chollima-1 launch, calling into question assessments that the advent of the satellite program “shows a shift toward practical rather than political goals.”
- On April 18, Kim Jong Un visited NADA and “set forth the militant task to organize a non-permanent satellite-launching preparatory committee to make sure that the military reconnaissance satellite No. 1 completed as of April will be launched at the planned date, [and] speed up its final preparations…”
- The new launch pad at Sohae used in the May 31 launch began construction between April 19 and 30, according to analysis of commercial imagery.
- North Korea notified the proper Japanese authorities under International Maritime Organization (IMO) procedures on May 29 of a forthcoming satellite launch between May 31 and June 11.
- On May 30, the Vice Chairman of the Central Military Committee noted that “military reconnaissance satellite No. 1” is “to be launched in June.”
- Commercial imagery also showed the new pad and associated facilities—including a launch stand, SLV erector, and a retractable shelter able to cover the launch area—had been completed between May 22 and 30, an unusually short amount of time of roughly a month from start to finish.
- Some have also speculated the Chollima-1 launch was intended to preempt or match South Korea’s launch of a satellite on its Nuri SLV. On April 11, South Korea announced it would conduct the Nuri’s second launch of a satellite on May 24, and the launch occurred on May 25. This possibility cannot be ruled out.
The quick construction of the Chollima-1 launch site also raises the intriguing possibility that the SLV itself was rushed into development, or at least rushed to launch, which might help explain the failure of the second stage during the May 31 launch.
More launches to come. North Korea’s May 31 announcement made clear that another reconnaissance satellite launch will occur “as soon as possible.” That announcement described a fairly methodical series of steps that would be taken to diagnose and resolve the cause of the Chollima-1 failure, including “various part tests” of presumably the relevant second-stage components and any fixes. From a technical standpoint, the amount of time required for this would probably be on the order of months, depending on how useful the telemetry data Pyongyang received from the SLV was, the difficulty of diagnosing and resolving any problems, and the degree of ground testing chosen to confirm the fixes and check out the entire SLV once modified. For example, the North took eight months from the April 2012 in-flight failure of the Unha SLV to launch again. But if Kim Jong Un decides another launch needs to occur sooner for political reasons, that will almost certainly take precedence despite how unready the Chollima and its developers may be.
Kim noted during his April 18 NADA visit the need for “deploying several reconnaissance satellites on different orbits in succession in the future.” Such a network would be necessary to ensure a large enough volume and frequency of imagery collection to make a military difference. Adding in the weather, earth observation, and communication satellites Kim has endorsed, each of which would need small networks of their own, we can expect quite a few satellite launches over the next several years after the Chollima-1’s problems are resolved, assuming North Korea can keep up production of reliable satellites within the SLV’s payload capability. Pyongyang may choose not to pre-notify SLV launches in the future, as it threatened on June 4 in reaction to the IMO’s condemnation of the May 31 launch.
And probably larger SLVs, too. The apparent need for more satellites in orbit, and presumably for larger satellites over time, highlights the Chollima-1’s likely payload limitations and makes a case for larger SLVs in the future. North Korea is reportedly also interested in launching multiple satellites on a single SLV, which would be easier with a larger SLV. One explanation for why the North Koreans hastily constructed a new launch pad for the Chollima-1 rather than use the preexisting launch pad is that the latter has been under modification since March 2022 for an even larger new SLV. We should expect to see further evidence of a larger SLV soon and expect progressively larger North Korean SLVs to be developed over the next several years.
See Colin Zwirko, “North Korea says it failed to launch spy satellite but will try again soon,” NK News, May 31, 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/05/rok-says-north-korea-launched-military-spy-satellite-triggering-alerts-in-seoul; and Kim Seung-wook and Park Soo-yoon, “이종섭 “확보한 北발사체는 2단 부분…모레쯤 인양될듯”(종합),” Yonhap News Agency, June 1, 2023, https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20230601089051504.
See Nathan J. Hunt. Twitter Post, May 31, 2023, 7:20 p.m., https://twitter.com/ISNJH/status/1664049267458322432; Dr. Jeffrey Lewis. Twitter Post, June 1, 2023, 12:09 p.m., https://twitter.com/ArmsControlWonk/status/1664303127699529730; and Dr Marco Langbroek. Twitter Post, June 1, 2023, 4:39 a.m., https://twitter.com/Marco_Langbroek/status/1664190031106547713.
See Dr. Jeffrey Lewis. Twitter Post, May 31, 2023, 10:36 a.m., https://twitter.com/ArmsControlWonk/status/1663917298803957765 and Jonathan McDowell. Twitter Post, May 30, 2023, 8:15 p.m., https://twitter.com/planet4589/status/1663700578613047303.
See “Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Inspects Preparatory Committee for Launching Reconnaissance Satellite,” Korean Central News Agency, May 17, 2023, https://kcnawatch.org/newstream/1684276877-205317905/respected-comrade-kim-jong-un-inspects-reconnaissance-satellite-launch-preparatory-committee/; Marco Langbroek, SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log, May 17, 2023, https://sattrackcam.blogspot.com/2023/05/gearing-up-for-new-north-korean.html; Josh Smith, “New North Korean space rocket features engine from ICBMs, analysts say,” Reuters, June 1, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/new-north-korean-space-rocket-features-engine-icbms-analysts-say-2023-06-01; “N.K.’s space vehicle possibly had technical glitch from ‘excessive route change’: S. Korean spy agency,” Yonhap News Agency, May 31, 2023, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20230531011200320; and RocketSchiller. Twitter Post, May 18, 2023, 2:03 a.m., https://twitter.com/RocketSchiller/status/1659077307334549511.
See Hyung-Jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung, “North Korea spy satellite launch fails as rocket falls into the sea,” AP News, May 31, 2023, https://apnews.com/article/north-korea-launch-military-spy-satellite-db6ce3f08e1ec8e23674aef519d04403; and Jeongmin Kim, “North Korea rushed satellite launch after seeing ROK rocket success, Seoul says,” NK News, June 1, 2023, https://www.nknews.org/2023/06/north-korea-rushed-satellite-launch-after-seeing-rok-rocket-success-seoul-says.