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A Month After Its Nuclear Test, North Korea Gears Up to Launch a Satellite

Many suspect the nation’s “Earth observation satellite” is nothing more than an excuse to test ballistic missiles.

by Becky Ferreira
Feb 3 2016, 6:00pm

Satellite image of North and South Korea. Image: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Tensions are high in East Asia in the wake of North Korea's Tuesday announcement that it will be launching an "Earth observation satellite" between February 8 and 25.

Many suspect that the launch is a ballistic missile test disguised as a satellite attempt, prompting vocal condemnation from the governments of Japan, South Korea, the United States, and others. The White House has threatened harsher sanctions against North Korea should the launch proceed, while Japanese defense minister Gen Nakatani has warned that Japan will not hesitate to destroy any rocket that poses a risk to its borders.

"We have defenses ready to deal with all threats, but in view of the announcement I have put the Self Defense Force's Aegis destroyers and our PAC-3 units on alert and issued an order to shoot down any ballistic missile threat," Nakatani told reporters at a recent media briefing.

Meanwhile, North Korean officials, including United Kingdom ambassador Hyon Hak Bong, continue to insist that "the launch is for a peaceful purpose."

There are several reasons that the international community is not buying the nation's assurances of peaceful ballistics use. The most obvious is that only a month ago, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un claimed that the country had successfully denoted a hydrogen bomb for the first time.

That's alarming no matter how you slice it, but keep in mind that Kim Jong-un likely hyped up the nature of the bomb for intimidation purposes. In reality, most experts think the weapon was not the kind of fusion-based city-destroyer we think of when we hear "H-bomb," but rather a less dramatic nuclear weapon, called a boosted fission bomb.

That said, any nuclear threat from North Korea is still a major geopolitical concern given that Kim Jong-un recently warned that "if invasive outsiders and provocateurs touch us even slightly, we will not be forgiving in the least and sternly answer with a merciless, holy war of justice."

North Korea's last satellite launch in December 2012. Video: Wall Street Journal/YouTube

Indeed, this troubling rhetoric combined with the bomb test and satellite launch is worrisome even to China, North Korea's closest ally. "We are extremely concerned about this," said Lu Kang, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, in a briefing about Tuesday's launch announcement.

"In the present situation, we hope North Korea exercises restraint on the issue of launching satellites, acts cautiously and does not take any escalatory steps that may further raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula."

If North Korea does go ahead with the launch, it would mark the nation's fifth satellite attempt in its Kwangmyŏngsŏng space program. So far, only the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2 satellite, launched in December 2012, has successfully been placed into orbit, and even that one experienced tumbling and control issues soon after.

As I wrote last year, modern space warfare is incredibly difficult to monitor—let alone police—so perhaps North Korea will be the next nation to test out its military ambitions in orbit, under the guise of "peaceful" satellite deployment. All the more reason for the international community to push for more stringent measures against the stealthy militarization of the space sector.