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North Korea May Be Giving a Space Program Another Try

Amid international objections and suspicion, North Korea appears to be preparing to launch an Earth-observation satellite into space.
Photo via Voice of America

It's typically not easy to leave North Korea, but right now the regime appears keen on getting at least one thing out of the country with a quickness: a satellite. There's been growing speculation that the hermit kingdom is spooling up to take another crack at the satellite launch game with a new Earth observation satellite.

"We are developing a more advanced Earth observation satellite, and when it's complete, before launching it, we will inform international organizations and other countries," Paek Chang Ho, vice director of the scientific research and development department of North Korea's space agency, told AP last week.


Paek declined to dish details about what the satellite will do — other than observe the Earth — how close it is to completion, when development began, or when the next launch may be. While North Korean space agency officials defend their right to conduct rocket launches whenever they see fit, the United States and a whole lot of other folks contend that it's all just an excuse to develop technologies for military use.

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The DPRK's first and only successful launch was in 2012, although there's some debate about whether the satellite was ever fully operational. Growing speculation holds that North Korea is possibly getting ready to take another crack at this in conjunction with the 70th anniversary this October of the ruling Korean Workers Party.

There's no doubt that the DPRK has been busy testing a whole bunch of military missile stuff: supposed submarine-launches of ballistic missiles, claims about the development of nuclear warheads small enough to be carried by missile, and the potential for a new road-mobile ballistic missile launcher and missile. But the North Koreans maintain — in their trademark North Korean way — that the space program is totally chill.

"Our National Aerospace Development Administration has peaceful objectives," Paek told AP. "America and its impure allies are always trying to persecute us…. We will continue launching satellites in the designated place when necessary and whether it is recognized or not. The high dignity of our republic will be exalted."


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The VICE News documentary 'Propaganda Over Pyongyang'

Space is an inherently dual-use domain. Like a comic book super power, almost any space-related technology — excepting, possibly, the manufacture of astronaut ice cream — can be used for good or evil, whether it be peaceful civilian use, or some sort of nefarious military use.

But something being used for military purposes doesn't axiomatically mean it can't serve a peaceful purpose. Yun Chang Hyok, vice chief of the space agency's research institute, said North Korea is also looking into developing and launching a communications satellite, and sees weather satellites as potentially useful for agricultural forecasting and planning. He said Pyongyang believes investment in space technology is good policy, even in a country strapped for resources, because its ripple effects through the economy bring "eightfold" benefits.

"Outer space is becoming more of crucial part of people's lives," he said. "It is impossible to establish a powerful country without the development of space technology."

If you took those words and stripped out the identifying information, you'd almost certainly get agreement from both the US State Department and NASA.

Related: No One Really Knows How Many Nukes North Korea Has

It might be possible to have an inspection that could at least partially confirm that a country was using space for peaceful purposes, but it would be far more difficult for a country to prove that all of its space technology (e.g., launch technology) wouldn't see a military use. It would be one of those situations where the absence of evidence is not evidence of an absence of problems. You might not find any evidence to show the technology is being used for peaceful purposes, but you can't take the lack of positive evidence to mean that there's no military use of the technology.

Which puts much of the international community in the awkward situation of being mostly okay with the objectives, but unhappy with any of the steps taken to achieve them.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Voice of America