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Preparing for the April DPRK Rocket Launch: A Timeline for the Next Three Weeks

29 March 2012


It is no secret that North Korea plans to launch a satellite in a window between April 12-16, 2012 to coincide with the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country. It also plans to use an Unha-3 booster rocket launched from a new space port (Sohae Satellite Launching Station, a.k.a. Tongchang-dong Space Launch Center). The real secret is how North Korea plans to accomplish this task in the nearly three weeks left before the announced launch window. To provide some context on a probable timeline, this article briefly discusses the observed activities leading up to the Unha launch on July 4, 2006 and the Unha-2 launch on April 5, 2009, both from its old Tonghae Test Center.

Commercial imagery and open source reporting has shown that the launch campaigns of both 2006 and 2009 from Tonghae took about 2.25 months. Therefore, if the North Koreans are following anything like their previous schedule, the new campaign should be well underway. Imagery as of March 29, 2012, indicates that preparations have indeed begun. If a launch is really planned, it can be assumed that the Unha-3 and the satellite Kwangmyongsong-3, identified as an earth resources mission, will soon be inside the assembly building.

Previous Launch Campaigns

The first two months of the 2006 and 2009 Unha launch campaigns consisted of moving the rocket stages by train and then by road to Tonghae, which took about one week. The next six or seven weeks consisted of mainly checkout of the rocket and satellite inside the assembly building and a visit by Kim Jong Il to inspect the progress.

For the April 5, 2009 launch we can construct an accurate series of events 14 days prior to the test. For this timeline, only the launch pad and horizontal assembly building (HAB) activity is considered, although there were other visible activities.

March 23 No activity.
March 24 Start of pad activity and vehicle movement at the HAB.
March 26 1st and 2nd stages stacked on pad and the 3rd stage and payload stacking in progress.
March 27 3rd stage and payload related vehicles still at the pad.
March 29 Full dress rehearsal launch in progress; Unha-2 fully seen and VIP vehicles are seen on the pad and later at the range control center.
April 2 Gantry completely canvas covered with possible fueling activity taking place.
April 5 Launch day: VIP pad visit 25 minutes before launch, Unha-2 fully seen; at launch, Unha-2 seen in flight and VIP vehicles seen at the control center.

Both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un were at Tonghae for the launch and stayed over until April 6.

No Activity (Tonghae)

Photo date: March 23, 2009. Image © 2009 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Third Stage and Payload Stacking in Progress

Photo date: March 26, 2009. Image © 2009 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Full Dress Rehearsal in Progress (Tonghae)

Photo date: March 29, 2009. Image © 2009 DigitalGlobe, Inc.

Full Dress Rehearsal in Progress, 37 Minutes Later

Photo date: March 29, 2009. Image © GeoEye.

Launch Day, 25 Minutes before Liftoff (Tonghae)

Photo date: April 5, 2009. Image © 2009 GeoEye.

In contrast, there was very limited commercial imagery before the launch on July 4, 2006. Also, since this was the first test of the Unha vehicle and the first satellite launch attempt since 1998, preparations took longer.

June 9 Work on the gantry in progress and the 1st stage seen being moved from the HAB.
June 15 1st stage stacked and the probable 2nd stage on its trailer next to the gantry; 1st stage trailer back at the HAB.
June 22 1st and 2nd stages stacked and the 3rd stage and payload stacking in progress; note this is the last available imagery before the July 4 launch.

The time period of pad activity was 26 days, twice as long as the 2009 launch. The one additional factor that could partially account for the longer time on the pad was the reported second Unha at Tonghae, which seems to have been removed by August 4, 2006. (It may have been present to provide a backup should there have been a problem with the primary vehicle. By having a second rocket ready, the North Koreans had a better chance for a successful on time launch. Whether it actually did replace the primary rocket and therefore extended the on pad time is unknown.)

Notional Pre-Launch Sequence of the Unha-3

Given the experiences of these previous tests, there are many indicators that can be used to identify the Unha pre-launch sequence. As the launch window gets closer, the pace of activity at the site naturally intensifies. The five day window probably means that the Unha-3 will be ready to launch on April 12, but to accommodate weather, potential technical problems and possible VIP schedules (a repeat of the 2009 visit, this time by Kim Jong Un to the launch), the North Koreans have built in another four days.

While they may start moving the rocket to the launch pad a few days earlier—since this is a new facility—based on a notional March 29 start of activities at the pad and a launch on April 12, the following is the probable sequence of events.

March 29-30 Transport of the 1st stage from the assembly building by its trailer to the launch pad. Stacking the 1st stage on the mobile launch stand using the gantry overhead crane.
March 31/April 1 Transport of the 2nd stage to the launch pad by its trailer. Stacking it on the 1st stage using the gantry crane.
April 2-3 Transport of the 3rd stage and payload to the launch pad. Stacking these on the 2nd stage using the gantry crane.
April 4 & 5 On pad checkout of the complete Unha-3 and its satellite payload.
April 6 or 7 Conducting a full launch readiness dress rehearsal. Gantry work platforms folded back with vehicles on the pad.
April 8-10 Possible built in hold. Unha-3 inside the gantry work platforms that are canvas covered.
April 11 Fueling of the rocket stages and final pad checkouts.
April 12-16 Launch window. Kim Jong Un arrives for the launch. On launch day, VIP pad visits about an hour before launch and the gantry work platforms all folded back.

Reader Feedback

13 Responses to “Preparing for the April DPRK Rocket Launch: A Timeline for the Next Three Weeks”

  1. Leland Romanoff says:

    It is great to see some more critical response to Homefront. The game’s laughably implausible premise is definitely frustrating, but it is the social and historical context of the game that makes it a real slap in the face to Koreans.

  2. […] always left with more questions. UPDATE 16:30 PDT Nice estimated schedule of events to come: UPDATE 19:57 PDT This is all […]

  3. Referee says:

    Both sides of the topic have valid reasons
    but even when the battle is won the war is lost
    because the innocent are killed.
    If the combatants are the only ones that get hurt
    like the presidents that want a war and all the
    hawks,then so be it. Humans seem to have that strange
    “quality” of not being universally co-operative for
    world peace and tranquility. What a waste of human
    souls if that “quality” is the only thing that prevents
    making a better world. PAX

  4. curious says:

    by the way who says.. its not satellite? and if there is no proof then who should pull legs on progress?

  5. Sam govers says:

    It is ironic that the US is critising and lobbying the DPRK so heavily. A past democracy themselves, but with a faltering healthcare and education system, the US should focus on their own problems. North Korea may be able to reach the US soon with missiles, but the US can reach Korea since many years. The US has proven to be a rogue state, killing many innocents on the other side of the world like in Iraq and Afghanistan for no good reason. Let the DPRK and Iran have their nuclear weapons. It may restore the balance and stop rogue countries like the US and Israel from continuing their genocide.

  6. john of sparta says:

    maybe, just maybe, the USN can try out their new
    ship-board lasers on this one. just for the lulz.

  7. Bottom of the Bottle says:

    Did they correctly forecast this 12 weeks in advance, Does the flight time and orbital entry estimation match Sokbo and Sireng? If the SCM Kpi is incorrect will this have an effect on the mission?

  8. thomas traction says:

    Let them launch their satellite… No harm from satellites..

    The states making the loudest complaints are the war and domination states…They wish to dominate every field of endeavor and close the doors to states they do not control.
    These states are killing poor people who cannot fight back in more than ten countries…. Slaughtering the people there and desecrating their victims to advance their quest to control energy resources. …. They use their ill gotten gains to develop new ways like Predator Drones to kill the local people from whom they steal the resources.

  9. The World knows what the launch of this ICBM is all about. We are fools if no one shoots it down. Use your heads!!!

  10. Juan de la Cruz says:

    The launch path as per North Korean’s press release is Australia, Indonesia and Philippines. NK BEWARE: There is an existing US-Philippines Defense Treaty which means an an attack on the Philippines can be considered an attack on US. It maybe be shot down if it is on-target path to our country!!!

  11. Robert Richardson says:

    The arrogant disregard of this country’s leaders for the welfare of their starving citizens, for whom they purport to continue to seek foreign food aid while expending vast national resources on long-range rocketry and other weapons of mass destruction, just beggars belief.
    Any neighboring country perceiving a threat from this launch should shoot it down, after clearly broadcasting such intent as Japan has already done.

  12. Seriously, these people are really making me sick! Why are thy launching rockets and breaching world contracts on peace!

  13. Mr M Hardy says:

    I salvaged the wreckage of the only known North Korean fired HN-3 missile off the Far North Eastly coast of Hokkaido Japan in the Pacific in May 2010 , missile had ben in the water for what appears to be at least a couple of years. Clear evidence CHINA sold the weapon to the DPRK.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.