Friday, April 13, 2012

Observations of a Rocket Launch

On March 16, 2012 North Korea announced they intended a rocket launch for purposes of putting a satellite in orbit. Over time it was discovered the reason for the rocket launch was specific to a request left in the will of the now deceased Dear Leader. There has been a lot of discussion internationally on the subject. As everyone is likely aware, the rocket launch yesterday resulted in about a 1 minute flight before the rocket appears to have suffered a spontaneous combustion problem at stage 1 separation. Conveniently, the remains of the entire rocket appear to have splashed west of South Korea inside the South Korean EEZ, and South Korea and United States have already announced they intend to recover the debris (and because of the water depth in that area, the debris will almost certainly be recovered).

While the rocket launch has dominated the news cycle related to North Korea for the last month, a new narrative has also emerged related to North Korea that never really made headlines beyond the initial news cycle. Army General James Thurman, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told a House panel on March 28, 2012 that a skilled team of hackers was the latest addition to North Korea's capabilities, and that such "attacks are ideal for North Korea, providing the regime a means to attack (South Korean) and U.S. interests without attribution, and have been increasingly employed against a variety of targets including military, governmental, educational and commercial institutions." This was the first time the cyber capabilities of North Korea has been discussed with Congress, and really the first time North Korea has been discussed in a cyber context by a high ranking military officer.

On April 10, 2012 Rear Adm. Samuel Cox gave a speech in Washington discussing the threat of cyber attack from North Korea, and it is worth noting that in those discussions of North Korea in the context of cyber, several US Cybercom officials have been discussing the changes to US policy related to cyber - specifically the development of new offensive cyber capabilities and expanding existing Pentagon protocols regarding cyberattacks beyond military networks. The change from defensive capabilities to offensive capabilities for US Cybercom is not a sudden change, and has been developing over time, but it is remarkable timing that the US puts North Korea in the discussion of cyber warfare and discusses cyber warfare in the context of offensive capabilities towards specific targets right before we see this rocket launch - because the rocket launch is exactly the kind of international isolated incident cyberwarfare would be utilized as the preferred approach.

It is not my intent to suggest the US defeated the rocket launched by North Korea, because I honestly do not believe we did. It is my intent to suggest that it is the offensive capabilities of other nations that has the United States ramping up our own cyber warfare capabilities. We do not know what cyber events are occurring in the world, and outside Stuxnet there are few very visable examples of high stakes military level espionage, but we would be fools to believe that examples of high stakes cyber espionage being demonstrated by other nations is somehow not a big part of what is driving a course correction within US Cybercom towards more offensive cyber capabilities for the United States.

Over the next several weeks experts in rocket technology will discuss in detail the crappyness of North Korean rocket launch history and the overrated threat of North Korean rocket capabilities - and they will do so even as nukes get off inside North Korea. It is remarkable that somehow nuclear science in the basement of a broken nation is easier than rocket science, particularly when the rocket science of North Korea does appear to work when technologies of that science are exported to nations like Iran. If North Korea had a perfect record of rocket failure, the analysis of North Korea being incapable of producing legitimate rockets would be more believable - but it is the success of previous North Korean launches that makes every new launch announcement a big deal internationally. It is also worth noting that while they are not the same, North Korea does assist and monitor rocket launches in other nations - including Iran, who has a much greater successful track record in the development of rocket and missile technology. For whatever reason, North Korean rocket technology does not work when launched from inside North Korea. I believe there are likely many valid reasons that could be speculated on that point, but I reject any instant unprofessional political analysis that suggests North Koreans are simply inept or stupid.

In an alternative universe, and I want to be clear I am speculating without any direct evidence, it is entirely possible that the South Koreans downed the rocket launch last night through espionage, and specifically cyber warfare. The advantage of a cyber warfare approach with North Korea is that it would have to be tailor made to their technology - and successful payloads would not scale to modern technology used in most places in the world. The first stage booster separation is clearly the time one would prefer the rocket to suddenly disintegrate, because a failure at that stage would immediately look like an accident supported by a history of failure. There is also the matter of geography, because if one could down the rocket at the first stage of separation for this specific launch, the location would give the South Koreans the best opportunity to recover the rocket.

At the end of the day, South Korea couldn't script a better result from this rocket launch outside of a fictional Hollywood thriller, but anyone familiar with cyber warfare would point out - you could certainly code this event if you could gain access to the rocket and were familiar with the software used for the booster rockets (oh btw, that rocket used old Soviet era booster technology, otherwise known as well understood technology). Based on reports from western journalists who were allowed visitation to the satellite, I know longer believe gaining physical access to the rocket would be as hard as I did prior to the launch - certainly not when a reporter from NBC claimed he was close enough and had a level of physical access that he could have touched the satellite. That's a truly unbelievable data point in this whole fiasco, and undermines all credibility that the satellite was ever actually real.

For the record, it is a demonstration of remarkable transparency that North Korea admitted failure with the rocket launch. It is so unprecedented for North Korea to admit failure in anything that some North Korean experts are suggesting this news of failure will be received by the population as bordering absurd and unbelievable. It is unclear what the purpose of announcing failure is, but rest assured - there is almost certainly a political calculation involved. One legitimate possibility I have heard mentioned is that the failure will be used as an excuse for the new leader to consolidate power by blaming the failure on Kim Jong-un's political rivals. However, another possibility is that by announcing failure and an investigation, it could be North Korea has reason to believe an outsider tampered with the rocket launch and the regime intends to blame South Korea for the failure.

It is very difficult to prove a cyber event or other forms of espionage took place, but in my opinion it's more believable that someone tampered with the rocket somehow to insure a first stage failure than it is to believe everything that happened last night is simply perfect luck or divine intervention on behalf of South Korea.

I don't want to suggest North Korea is immune from Murphy's Law, but in regional high stakes politics - the odds of a perfect failure of a North Korean rocket like this that results in the best case scenario for the interests of South Korea are only very slightly better odds than you and I both winning the next $600 million Powerball lottery.

I know nothing, but at final tally of this rocket launch - as I observe what I saw last night based on first reports - it will not surprise me to learn at some later date that someone adjusted the odds in the favor of this scenario.

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