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Questions arise as North Korea prepares another rocket launch attempt

By Larry Shaughnessy, CNN Pentagon Producer
updated 4:02 AM EST, Mon December 10, 2012
North Korea postpones rocket launch
North Korea postpones rocket launch

Washington (CNN) -- The signs were there. Fuel trucks at the launch site, rocket stages being assembled. All supported North Korea's claims that sometime between December 10 and 22, it will launch a small satellite into orbit.

But now the reclusive communist government has admitted technical details could delay what was looking to be the first time it tried two long-range rocket or missile tests in one year. No reason was given.

North Korean scientists and technicians are "seriously examining the issue of readjusting the launching time" of a second long-range rocket this year, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported, citing a spokesman for the Korean Committee of Space Technology.

Read more: North Korea extends launch window for rocket after technical problems

North Korea postpones rocket launch
North Korea may launch another rocket

The scenario has left the U.S. military in a 'wait and see' mode regarding whether North Korea can correct its mistakes so quickly following a failed attempt in April.

"To the degree that they will be more successful than they were last time in such a short period of time and what they've done to correct it, I can't tell you how they assess that," said Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. "Should they choose to go ahead with it, we'll just have to see how it goes."

The delay might indicate that short turnaround was problematic. The April satellite launch failed spectacularly shortly after the engines started.

"I think it went a minute or so," said David Wright, who has followed North Korea's launches for years as a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It's hard to do even for an advanced country."

Western observers aren't even sure what went wrong with that attempt.

"My sense is that what must have happened is, the first stage consists of four engines, all of which are supposed to work at the same time," Wright said. "And there's some indication that all four of those were not working correctly and that it was starting to lose power and veer off its trajectory."

That trajectory, unlike previous launches, was in a southern direction over the East China Sea. The goal was to put a satellite into a Polar orbit.

It appears from the North Korean announcement that this next launch will follow the same course.

"They said they still have a second copy of the satellite they were trying to put up, so I think this is basically just a do over," Wright said.

But from a major launch failure to a second attempt, even with the same trajectory and payload, in just eight months is a very short turnaround.

"It's possible it was easy for them to identify, that a part failed or something like that," Wright said.

So is a nation that can barely feed its people capable of a quick "do over" by itself?

"That's the $10,000 question we've been trying to answer. It's pretty clear that North Korea and Iran have been talking, collaborating," Wright said.

"There certainly appears that there has been some trade of information between the two of them. It's very hard to know whether they called in for some help from Iran or whether they've just basically been going through this themselves," he said.

Locklear was vague about whether the U.S. military believes the North Koreans are getting help.

"I think that they have progressively gained better technology over time and they have progressively gained that through a number of methods over a number of years and decades," Locklear said at a recent Pentagon press conference.

China is believed to aid the North Korean military with some equipment though not necessarily launch technology. A Chinese missile transport truck was seen carrying a long range missile during a Pyongyang parade.

"I'm sure there's been some help coming from China. I don't know, you know, the exact extent of that," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Congress last spring.

The Navy has dispatched two warships to the region that are equipped to track whatever North Korea may attempt to launch.

The United States considers the launch destabilizing to the region and the "international security environment," Locklear said.

"Our assessment is that their desire to continue down this road is motivated by their desire to ensure that their capability -- and they're now a self-proclaimed nuclear state -- their ability to be able to demonstrate to the world that they have the capacity to be able to build missiles and have the missile technology to be able to use it in ways of their choosing down the road," Locklear said.

Wright said relations on the Korean Peninsula seem to be driving the schedule of the launch, not global politics or scientific advancements by its rocket engineers.

He explained that developments by South Korea are likely also contributing to the rush to launch.

"South Korea has for a number of years been trying to launch their own satellite ... they were supposed to have tried a launch on November 29," Wright said.

South Korea "had technical problems and postponed that until spring, But clearly from North Korea's point of view, if they could launch a satellite before South Korea that would be a real feather in their cap," he said.

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