North Korea Tests Rocket Engine: Is It for Satellites or Ballistic Missiles?

Sohae Launch Center in North Korea
North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launch Station, as seen by a satellite in November 2012. North Korea recently performed a test of a powerful rocket engine at the site, the nation announced on March 19, 2017. (Image credit: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)

Once again, North Korea has tested technology that could help get satellites or long-range missiles off the ground.

North Korean state media announced over the weekend that the nation had performed a ground test of a powerful rocket engine that "would help consolidate the scientific and technological foundation to match the world-level satellite delivery capability in the field of outer space development."

But the nuclear-armed rogue nation has also stated that it's close to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and it has threatened many times to obliterate South Korea, Japan and the United States.

As such, some experts don't believe that the country designed the newly tested engine for peaceful purposes.

Rockets and ballistic missiles share a common past. See how ballistic missiles work in our full infographic. (Image credit: Karl Tate, contributor)

"This was a comprehensive test for the first-stage rocket for an ICBM, and that is why it was dangerous," rocket expert Kim Dong-yub, of the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul, told Reuters. "It appears that North Korea has worked out much of its development of the first-stage rocket booster."

But the engine looks a lot like the one that North Korea tested last September, aerospace engineer and rocket-propulsion expert John Schilling noted. That engine was assessed as "being better suited for use in satellite launch vehicles than ballistic missiles," Schilling wrote today (March 20) on, a North Korea analysis site.

Moreover, the newly tested engine apparatus appears to be too large to fit into any of North Korea's known ICBM prototypes, he added.

"Of the North Korean rocket and missile projects that we are currently aware of, the best fit for this engine would be as the second stage of the new satellite launch vehicle provisionally known as the 'Unha-9,'" Schilling wrote.

It's possible, however, that North Korea is working on an ICBM design that the United States and its allies don't know about, he added. (The rogue nation is famously unpredictable, after all.)

"The North Korean regime has never been shy when it comes to bragging about their missiles," Schilling wrote. "This time, it seems they are bragging about [their] space program. Whenever they get around to showing us their new satellite launcher, we'll know for sure."

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.