S. Korean military salvages sunken N. Korean space rocket wreckage

June 16, 2023

The South Korean military has retrieved a sunken part of an ill-fated North Korean space rocket from the Yellow Sea, officials said Friday, capping a weekslong salvage operation hamstrung by poor underwater visibility, fast currents and other obstacles.

It raised the wreckage, presumed to be part of the rocket’s second stage, Thursday evening, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said, amid expectations that a probe into it could shed light on the progress of the North’s long-range rocket development program.

On May 31, the North fired what it claimed to be the new “Chollima-1″ rocket carrying a military reconnaissance satellite, “Malligyong-1,” but it crashed into the sea due to the abnormal starting of the second-stage engine, according to its state media.

On the same day, the South Korean military identified the wreckage when it splashed into the waters some 200 kilometers west of the western island of Eocheong. But it dropped to the sea floor at a depth of 75 meters due in part to its heavy weight.

The lifted wreckage was around 12 meters long — shorter than previously thought — and 2 to 3 meters in diameter. The large portion of the rocket, thought to be about 30 meters long in total, could help elucidate how far North Korea’s rocket technology has come, observers said.

For the retrieval operation, the Navy deployed a group of specially trained divers and some 10 vessels, including two salvage and rescue ships, the ROKS Tongyeong and the ROKS Gwangyang, as well as the ROKS Cheonghaejin submarine rescue ship, and multiple maritime aircraft.

The painstaking operation was fraught with a set of challenges, including inclement underwater conditions, like visibility of just 50 centimeters, as the Navy prioritized the safety of divers and other personnel, according to a JCS official.

“The Yellow Sea by nature has fast currents and poor visibility,” S. Cpo. Shin Gyoung-jun, a Navy deep-sea diver who took part in the salvage operations, said. “(We) virtually had to carry out operations through just the feel of our hands.”

The military unveiled to reporters the cylindrical wreckage on the deck of the ROKS Gwangyang at the Navy’s Second Fleet in Pyeongyaek, 60 kilometers south of Seoul.

On its exterior, “Cheonma” was written along with a drawing of a horse. Cheonma means heavenly horse in Korean.

It was also covered with countless scratches made by deep-sea divers’ equipment used during the salvage operation. Some of the paint peeled off, while many dents were seen in an apparent indication of the shock it might have sustained during the crash into the waters.

It was split into two parts, as the upper 2.5-meter-long section broke off due to a crack that had widened while being transported to the vessel.

Officials did not confirm what was inside the wreckage, citing the need for further analysis.

South Korea and the United States plan to conduct a joint probe into it as agreed on during the allies’ defense ministerial talks on the margins of an annual security forum in Singapore earlier this month.

Various U.S. military and intelligence agencies will join the probe, including a unit under the Defense Intelligence Agency, an official at South Korea’s Defense Intelligence Command told reporters.

The retrieval process proceeded in phases.

Divers first attached pieces of hauling gear to the cylinder-shaped wreckage and linked it to steel wires. Before it was lifted close to the surface, divers added additional pieces of equipment to ensure it would not fall back down. Then, they hauled it onto a military ship, using a crane.

Challenges emerged from the initial phase as divers could hardly find parts of the round-shaped wreckage’s exterior where they could fix wires — unlike the uneven exterior of the crashed helicopter salvaged last year.

The military involved experts from the state-run Agency for Defense Development and other specialists in the operation to ensure it would proceed safely without losing any crucial pieces of the wreckage, the JCS official said.

Among the hindrances were the heavy weight of the wreckage stuck in the mud flat and the possibility that it could break apart while being lifted. Concerns also arose that an explosion could occur if it contained combustible elements like a fuel storage part.

“Due to the potential dangers, we had technical advisers on board so that we could take necessary steps while observing the situation,” the JCS official told reporters on condition of anonymity. “From the thickness of diving suits to other issues, we sufficiently took safety concerns into account.”

The Navy successfully lifted the wreckage in its fourth attempt, after fastening cables on the lower part of the object, and installing hooks and additional cables on the upper section.

It also recovered a ring-shaped object, presumed to be part of the rocket, at a different location on June 5, a military official said without elaborating.

The military is also carrying out a separate mission to search for other rocket parts, including the third stage and a purported satellite. Their search has been proceeding at sea, underwater and in the air, the JCS said.