When North Korea announced this week that it had rebranded its space program as the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), reporters everywhere were obliged to note that it wasn't an April Fool's joke before gleefully mocking the name and logo.
Did North Korean lack bilingual staff able to point out the fact that NADA means nothing in Spanish? Well, the answer to that is a resounding “¡No!” Not only was there a Spanish-language version of its press release, but in it North Korea opted to change NADA to ANDE, for Administracion Nacional de Desarrollo Espacial.
The emblem, in turn, was widely criticized for being a ripoff of NASA's. But anyone who takes five seconds to check out space-agency logos from other countries can see that they pretty much all look the same — apparently there's only so much graphic designers can do with stars, rockets, contrails, and olive branches. Most logos appear to be rip-offs of either NASA's or that of the United Federation of Planets from Star Trek (which itself is a ripoff of the United Nations emblem).
The very fact that North Korea had its own space program at all seemed to shock a lot of people. But in an era when Silicon Valley billionaires are aiming to build rockets capable of going to Mars, it's no surprise. In fact, plenty of striving nations are investing in space programs. Mexico has a space program. So does Nigeria. China has its own space station, and an Indian satellite is currently on its way to Mars. (Even plucky Canada is uncharacteristically unapologetic about the success of its program.)
Why do nations that have grave financial needs on the ground pursue space? For starters, space programs give young engineers exciting and challenging things to work on that may lead to economic dividends (launching communications satellites for other countries can be very lucrative). A success in space is an opportunity for nationalistic chest-beating. And, of course, the potential uses for the technology aren't limited to putting men on the moon.
And that's where NADA comes in. In the press release, North Korea reiterated its oft-claimed right to pursue “peaceful” space projects of potential economic benefit for the nation, while noting its opposition to “the weaponization of outer space.” Thing is, these claims smell a bit fishy — not unlike the smell that emanated from Japan's claims that it was killing whales for scientific research — based on what we know about North Korea's space program to date.
In short, they're trying very hard to go to space. But probably not for peaceful purposes.
Now, the US, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia can't entirely condemn North Korea for something they've all done to some extent. That said, experts agree that NADA is literally going ballistic. In other words, North Korea’s space program has always been a thinly veiled excuse to make long-range rockets. When you yank out the communications satellites from these rockets and install nuclear warheads, they suddenly become intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“It’s a way of testing the various elements of a ballistic missile: rocket engines, the launch process, and some aspects of the guidance system,” space-policy expert Dr. John Logsdon, professor emeritus of International Relations at The George Washington University, told VICE News. “It’s a way of demonstrating that they have the capability, in principle, to deliver nuclear weapons. Rocket technology is rocket technology, whether it accelerates a payload to orbit or a warhead.”
North Korea launched a rocket in 1998 that traveled over a Japanese island before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. When everyone freaked out, Pyongyang claimed it was no biggie, because they were just sending a satellite into orbit to collect data and, naturally, broadcast patriotic songs about Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-song in Morse code. Neither the satellite nor the music was ever detected, and experts deemed the launch to have been unsuccessful.
'Rocket technology is rocket technology, whether it accelerates a payload to orbit or a nuclear warhead.'
Essentially the same thing happened again in 2009, only this time it was a bigger rocket carrying what the regime swore was an even cooler-looking satellite … that no one saw in real life. Again, the rocket flew over Japan and crashed into the ocean.
In December 2011, Kim Jong-un was made the nation’s supreme leader following his father’s funeral. Four months later, Pyongyang attempted to put a third satellite into orbit, but the rocket exploded 90 seconds after launch.
Finally, in December 2012, North Korea conducted its first successful space launch. American military sources confirmed that the Unha-3 rocket had functioned successfully and put an object into orbit that Pyongyang claimed was an Earth surveillance satellite. Whether the successful launch was the result of domestic innovation is a matter of dispute. “My understanding is that it’s reliant on foreign technology coming from Iran,” Logsdon said. A few days after being placed in orbit, the satellite was reported by monitoring agencies to be tumbling out of control; it's assumed that it fell to Earth.
Still, the successful launch came as quite a shock to South Korea, who over the years had gotten accustomed to developing technology that was lightyears ahead of their bronemies to the north. The launch occurred during South Korea's presidential campaign, so it was probably no coincidence that during the final debate before the election, conservative party candidate Park Geun Hye promised that, if she were elected, she’d make sure a South Korean flag would be waving on the moon by the end of the decade. She was elected a few days later, and now South Korea’s space agency is pursuing plans to create a fully domestic heavy-lift space launch vehicle. They plan to put a communications satellite into lunar orbit by 2017, and to land a rover on the moon in 2020.
All of this matters, of course, because North Korea supposedly has four to eight nukes. The regime has conducted multiple underground nuclear tests, most recently in February 2013. Experts believe the regime lacks the technological capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead so that it can be delivered on a missile. But if and when they become capable doing so, they clearly want to have the missile ready.
And that's why NADA is no joke.