SEOUL – The rocket North Korea launched this week appeared to be more powerful than one fired in 2012, with an increased range of 12,000 km (7,500 miles) which puts most of the U.S. within reach, a South Korean Defense Ministry official said Tuesday.
The rocket was confirmed to have put an object into orbit but it has not yet been verified if the object, said to be a satellite, is functioning, he told reporters on condition of anonymity.
The rocket was similar to the Unha-3 launched in December 2012 but its range is believed to be about 2,000 km more than the older model.
“However, we need more analysis to determine the capacity, including its exact range,” a Defense Ministry spokesman said.
There had been speculation the North might use a much larger rocket this time after having completed work on an extended 67-meter (220-foot) gantry tower capable of handling a launch vehicle twice the size of the 30-meter Unha-3.
North Korea, however, has not yet mastered the key technology needed to turn the rocket into an intercontinental ballistic missile — a re-entry vehicle to protect the warhead from heat, the official said.
The rocket, carrying an Earth-observation satellite, blasted off Sunday at around 9 a.m. and, according to North Korean state TV, achieved orbit 10 minutes later.
In a strange twist, the satellite passed almost directly over the stadium where Super Bowl 50 had been played just an hour after the game ended.
“It passed almost directly overhead Silicon Valley, which is where I am and where the stadium is,” tech watcher Martyn Williams said in an email. “The pass happened at 8:26 p.m., after the game. I would put it down to nothing more than a coincidence, but an interesting one.”
The game in Santa Clara, California, ended at 7:25 p.m. local time.
The launch, widely seen as a disguised long-range missile test, sparked international condemnations and resulted in an agreement at the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions against the increasingly defiant state.
The flight path of the latest rocket was also similar to the 2012 launch vehicle, whose first-stage debris was recovered by South Korea off its western coast.
In the latest launch, North Korea is believed to have blown up the rocket’s first stage into about 270 pieces in a bid to cover up its technological footprint, the official said.
The North is already subject to numerous U.N. sanctions over previous rocket launches and three nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.