Mysteries swirl around North Korea's satellite launch (+video)
The US believes North Korea's satellite is out of control, but the South Koreans insist that it is functioning normally.
US and South Korean officials appear to disagree on one detail of the North Korean satellite that has nothing to do with any difference over what to do about it.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Kim Jong-un: Mystery Man
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
No sooner had major American television networks spread the word from their official sources that the satellite was “out of control” than South Korea’s defense ministry came out with just the opposite view.
Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok, briefing South Korean reporters, told them that, “for the time being,” the satellite is “working normally.”
That word seemed to snuff out the image of the satellite wobbling off course as it circles the earth in what the ministry says is an oval pattern. The satellite, says the ministry, takes 95.4 minutes to complete an orbit at a speed of about four miles per second.
RELATED – Blast off: 6 recent missile advances
The difference in analysis appears to revolve around what kind of orbit the satellite is in as it whirls about 300 miles above the earth’s surface.
Lee Sung-yoon, professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School in Medford, Mass., argues that North Korea has “not yet developed a fully functioning satellite despite their apparent success in ballistic propulsion technology.” Yonhap, the South Korean news agency, reports that analysts at the Korean Aerospace Research Institute believe North Korean engineers aimed to put the satellite in a circular orbit, but that it’s now in an elliptical orbit. That doesn’t mean, they say, that it’s “out of control.”
The institute's Lee Kyu-su says the North Koreans could correct the course of the satellite, which weighs 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds), with the help of a small booster, which the North Koreans don’t have.
The big mystery, according to Mr. Kim at the defense ministry, is what the North Korean satellite is really doing up there. “It is not yet known what kind of mission the satellite is conducting,” he says. “It usually takes two weeks to evaluate whether a satellite is successful.”
US and South Korean officials are less concerned, however, about the equipment the satellite is carrying and what it’s supposed to accomplish than about the implications of the North’s ability to fire such an object from a long-range rocket or missile.
All that’s needed to turn the North Korean rocket into a vehicle for mass destruction, they say, is to substitute a warhead for the satellite.