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18:44 16 April 2012

UPDATE1 FOCUS: U.S. expert questions N. Korea's attempt at transparency over rocket launch

By Ko Hirano
PYONGYANG, April 16, Kyodo

A U.S. space expert has questioned North Korea's attempt at transparency in the failed launch Friday of what it says was an ''earth observation satellite.''

While commending North Korea for allowing foreign journalists to visit the launch site in the country's northwest prior to liftoff, James Oberg, who covered the launch with NBC News as its space consultant, questioned the way North Korean authorities handled the foreign media during the launch itself and wondered if the rocket really carried a satellite.

Oberg said North Korea's failure to display what was inside the nosecone before liftoff has fueled suspicion about its intentions -- whether the launch was really to send the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite into orbit, as the government claimed, or if it was to test long-range ballistic missile technology, as other countries suspect.

''They have tried out transparency. But in the two most critical areas, they failed to follow through,'' Oberg, a former rocket scientist at NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said in an interview in Pyongyang.

North Korean authorities failed to show foreign journalists what is inside the rocket cone although ''they promised us explicitly to do so,'' he said.

''The second thing is: they promised to show us the launch, if not at the launch, either even in the control center or even here at the newsroom. But they didn't,'' he said.

A large video screen and one smaller screen set up at a filing center for foreign journalists on a reporting trip to North Korea, or Oberg called the newsroom, in a Pyongyang hotel remained blank before and after the three-stage Unha-3 rocket failed, disintegrating and falling into the Yellow Sea off South Korea shortly after liftoff at 7:38 a.m.

An official of the Korean Committee for Space Technology was at the filing center when reports from outside North Korea said the launch had failed.

He told foreign journalists that a briefing would be held ''in 10 minutes or so'' and images of the launch would be displayed on the screen. However, the briefing did not occur and the launch was never shown.

Oberg said the sky was clear Friday morning, though he was unaware of wind velocity at high altitude at the launch time. He said early morning is a preferred time to launch a satellite.

Oberg added trouble in the early stage of a flight usually involves an engine. He suspects an explosion may have occurred when the rocket was nearing a point called ''maximum dynamic pressure'' in which the rocket is most severely stressed by airflow as it travels faster and higher as air gets thinner.

North Korea has yet to release information, images or other photos relating to the launch except initial reports by the official media that acknowledged the failure.

The U.S. expert said he understands North Korean space officials' claim the Unha-3 is a ''carrier rocket,'' not a ballistic missile as other countries suspect.

Unha means galaxy in English, while Kwangmyongsong stands for ''bright shining star.''

The Unha-3 is ''not a weapon'' as it requires more components and technology, Oberg said. ''But it's not going to be too hard if they need to make a weapon out of this rocket.''

He pointed out that specific timing of the launch set by the leadership, enthusiasm about the centennial of state founder Kim Il Sung and the governance style of the country may have put extra pressure on engineers and clouded their judgment.

''I was worried from my visit here that a very necessary condition for safe space flight was missing. It is a condition when every worker can raise a warning about a problem they see or assumption or belief that they do not trust,'' Oberg said. ''This is a mistake everyone faces. And sometimes it's very costly.''

''When people are at their best, they're always cautious. And they always encourage every worker to disagree with his boss,'' he said. ''But in general, this country does not have such a system. And this specific style that we saw from the leadership is one of exhortation, which is to demand everyone work and trust their great leader.''




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