The North Korean space program

The North Korean space program started in the 1980s with the aim of producing and placing communications satellites, Earth observation satellites, and weather observation satellites. Let’s have a look at the North Korean space program and some of its most famous achievements.

The DPRK, concerning the North Korean space program, twice announced that it had launched satellites: Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 on August 31, 1998 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 on April 5, 2009. The United States of America and South Korea predicted that the launches would be military ballistic missile tests, but later confirmed that the satellites had actually followed orbital launch trajectories. The North Korean satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, launched on April 12, 2012, entered polar orbit and was a success for the country. Finally, the reconnaissance satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 was launched by North Korea on February 7, 2016.

North Korea

North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or DPR Korea), is a country in East Asia constituting the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, with Pyongyang the capital and the largest city in the country. To the north and northwest, the country is bordered by China and by Russia along the Amnok (known as the Yalu in Chinese) and Tumen rivers and to the south it is bordered by South Korea, with the heavily fortified Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating the two.

In 1910, Korea was annexed by Imperial Japan. After the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II in 1945, Korea was divided into two zones, with the north occupied by the Soviet Union and the south occupied by the United States of America. Negotiations on reunification failed, and in 1948, separate governments were formed: the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the capitalist Republic of Korea in the south. An invasion initiated by North Korea led to the Korean War. The Korean Armistice Agreement (1953) brought about a ceasefire, but no peace treaty was signed.

North Korea officially describes itself as a “self-reliant” socialist state, and formally holds elections, though said elections have been described by outside observers as sham elections. Outside observers also generally view North Korea as a Stalinist totalitarian dictatorship, particularly noting the elaborate cult of personality around Kim Il-sung and his family. Juche, an ideology of national self-reliance, was introduced into the constitution in 1972. The means of production are owned by the state through state-run enterprises and collectivized farms. Most services such as healthcare, education, housing and food production are subsidized or state-funded.

From 1994 to 1998, North Korea suffered a famine that resulted in the deaths of between two hundred and fifty thousand and four hundred and twenty thousand people, and the population continues to suffer malnutrition. North Korea follows Songun, or “military-first” policy. It is the country with the highest number of military and paramilitary personnel. It possesses nuclear weapons.

The UN inquiry into human rights in North Korea concluded that, “The gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”. The North Korean regime strongly denies most allegations, accusing international organizations of fabricating human rights abuses as part of a smear campaign with the covert intention of undermining the state, although they admit that there are human rights issues relating to living conditions which the regime is attempting to correct.

The North Korean space program

The North Korean space program, even though very little information on it is publicly available, began in the 1980s with the creation of the Korean Committee of Space Technology (KCST), most likely connected to the Artillery Guidance Bureau of the Korean People’s Army. The Korean Committee of Space Technology was the agency of the North Korean government responsible for the country’s space program. The agency was terminated and succeeded by the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) in 2013 after the Law on Space Development was passed in the 7th session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly.

The KCST was responsible for all operations concerning space exploration and construction of satellites. On March 12, 2009 North Korea signed the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on October 10, 1967) and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force on September 15, 1976). “The DPRK’s accession to the said Treaty and Convention will contribute to promoting international confidence and boosting cooperation in the scientific research into space and the satellite launch for peaceful purposes”.

KCST operated the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground and Sohae Satellite Launching Station rocket launching sites, Taepodong-1 and Unha launchers, and Kwangmyŏngsŏng satellites. South Korea and the United States of America accused North Korea of using these facilities and the rockets as a cover for a military ballistic missile testing program.

The DPRK twice announced that it had launched satellites: Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 on August 31, 1998 and Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 on April 5, 2009. The United States of America and South Korea predicted that the launches would be military ballistic missile tests, but later confirmed that the satellites had actually followed orbital launch trajectories. In 2009, DPRK announced more ambitious future space projects, including manned space flights and development of a manned partially reusable launch vehicle. The North Korean satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3, launched on April 12, 2012, entered polar orbit and was a success for the country. Finally, the reconnaissance satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 was launched by North Korea on February 7, 2016.

The National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA), the official space agency of North Korea, succeeding the Korean Committee of Space Technology, was founded on April 1, 2013. The current basis for the activities of NADA is the Law on Space Development. The Law sets out the North Korean principles of peaceful development of activities in outer space and determines compliance with the principles of the Juche ideology. The Law on Space Development aims at solving scientific and technological problems. The Law calls for cooperation with international organisations and other countries, respect for Public International Law, Space Law, and international regulations.

The emblem of NADA consists of a dark blue globe with the word Kukgaujugaebalkuk in white Korean letters on the bottom, DPRK in light blue letters on the top, the constellation Ursa Major, NADA in white letters in the middle, and two bright blue rings symbolizing satellite orbits and the intention of place on all orbits of satellites.

The Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground

The Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground, also known as Musudan-ri, is a rocket launching site in North Korea. It lies in southern Hwadae County, North Hamgyong Province, near Musu Dan, the cape marking the northern end of the East Korea Bay. The site is forty-five kilometres northeast of port city of Kimchaek and forty-five kilometres from the town of Kilju.

By the early 80s, North Korea needed a flight-test facility for the North Korean space program to reverse-engineer and produce copies of the Scud rocket which it acquired from the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. Previously, North Korea used a facility at Hwajin-ri to test for anti-ship missiles surface-to-air missiles, and other rockets.

The construction of the facility continued off and on throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Construction was made by the 117th Regiment under the Air Force Construction Bureau of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces. Construction of the launch pad was completed in 1985. During the early stage of construction, the site had an extremely rudimentary infrastructure, such as a few roads, a command bunker, a radar facility, and modest storage and support facilities. However, by the early 1990s the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground site was reportedly expanded from two kilometres to nine kilometres and the following infrastructure was added: a missile assembly facility, a fuel storage facility, a guidance and range control centre, and tracking facilities.

The Sohae Satellite Launching Station

The Sohae Satellite Launching Station is a rocket launching site in Tongch’ang-ri, North Korea. The base is located among hills close to the northern border with China. The spaceport was built on the site of the village Pongdong-ri which was displaced during construction.

The entire facility occupies over six square kilometres, and consists of a launch site, a static rocket motor test stand, vehicle checkout and processing buildings, a launch control building, a large support area, a complex headquarters building and an entry control point. The site is five times larger than the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground.

Signs of construction were visible during the early 1990s and became more pronounced by the early 2000s. By early 2011 it was reported that the construction was completed and that it had been under construction for a decade. The first official mention of the site took place in March 2012 when North Korea announced it will launch from that site the satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3.

Taepodong-1

Taepodong-1 was a three-stage technology demonstrator developed by North Korea, a development step toward an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The missile was derived originally from the Scud rocket (a series of tactical ballistic missiles developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War) and was tested once in 1998 as a space launch vehicle. As a space launch vehicle, it was sometimes called the Paektusan-1.

On August 31, 1998, North Korea announced that they had used this rocket to launch their first satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 from the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground. However, the satellite failed to achieve orbit; outside observers conjecture that the additional third stage either failed to fire or malfunctioned.

The rocket was launched eastward, passing over Japan at an altitude of over two hundred kilometres. The second stage came down into the Pacific Ocean about sixty kilometres past Japan, and the third stage about six hundred kilometres beyond Japan. According to post-launch analysis of the launch vehicle, debris from the third stage fell as far as four thousand kilometres from the launch pad.

Unha

The Unha, meaning “Galaxy” in North Korean, is a North Korean expendable carrier rocket, which partially utilizes the same delivery system as the Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile. North Korea’s first orbital space launch attempt occurred on August 31, 1998 and was unsuccessful. This launch attempt was performed by a Taepodong-1 rocket which used a solid motor third stage, a Scud-missile-based second stage, and a Rodong-1 (single-stage, mobile liquid propellant medium-range ballistic missile developed in the mid-1980s by North Korea) based first stage.

On February 24, 2009, North Korea announced that a Unha rocket would be used to launch the Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 satellite. Several countries, including South Korea, the U.S., and Japan, voiced concerns that the launch would violate United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 which prohibits North Korea from testing ballistic missiles. On April 5, 2009 the Unha-2 rocket was launched. The USA said that the first stage of the rocket fell into the Sea of Japan, while the other rocket stages, as well as the payload, fell into the Pacific Ocean, and no object entered orbit.

On December 12, 2012, the Unha-3 rocket was launched; the USA confirmed that the satellite had entered orbit.

The Kwangmyŏngsŏng program

The Kwangmyŏngsŏng program, started in the mid-1980s, is a class of experimental satellites developed by North Korea. The name Kwangmyŏngsŏng, meaning “Bright Star”, “Brilliant Star”, or “Constellation” in North Korean, is from a poem written by Kim Il-sung. There have been five launches so far, of which two have been successful.

In a late-1993 political meeting Kim Il-sung expressed his desire to quickly place a satellite into orbit, leading to the expansion of North Korea’s nascent space program and the requirement for a space launch vehicle.

Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1 was a satellite allegedly launched by North Korea on August 31, 1998, a few days before the 50th anniversary of North Korea’s independence from Japan. While the North Korean government claimed that the launch was successful, no objects were ever tracked in orbit from the launch, and it was internationally considered to have been a failure. It was the first satellite to be launched as part of the Kwangmyŏngsŏng program, and the first satellite that North Korea attempted to launch. The China National Space Administration was involved in the development of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-1, which had a 72-faced polyhedral shape, similar to Dong Fang Hong I, the first Chinese satellite.

Kwangmyŏngsŏng-2 was a satellite launched by North Korea on April 5, 2009. Prior to the launch, concern was raised by other nations, particularly the United States of America, South Korea and Japan, that the launch would test technology that could be used in the future to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. On April 13, 2009, the United Nations Security Council issued a Presidential Statement condemning the launch as a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 (2006). One day after, on April 14, 2009, North Korea called the Presidential Statement an infringement on a country’s right for space exploration embodied in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 was a North Korean Earth observation satellite, which according to the DPRK was for weather forecast purposes, and whose launch was widely portrayed in the West to be a veiled ballistic missile test. The satellite was launched on April 13, 2012 aboard the Unha-3 carrier rocket from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. The rocket exploded ninety seconds after launch near the end of the firing of the first stage of the rocket. The launch was planned to mark the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung.

Kwangmyongsong-4 is a reconnaissance satellite launched by North Korea on February 7, 2016. The launch happened after North Korea conducted a nuclear test on January 6, 2016, and as the United Nations Security Council was deciding on sanctions to be placed on the country following the nuclear test. The launch was also timed to celebrate the 74th birthday of Kim Jong-Il on February 16. On February 2, 2016, North Korea sent a notification to the International Maritime Organization stating that the country was going to launch an Earth observation satellite. The notification also included the drop zones for the first stage, the payload fairing and the second stage of the rocket.

The satellite was launched on February 7, 2016 into roughly a Sun-synchronous orbit well suited for an Earth observation satellite. Regarded as sending a message to both neighbouring China as well as the United States of America, the launch also took place on the eve of the Chinese New Year and the Super Bowl in United States of America. It was initially claimed by U.S. officials that the satellite was “tumbling in orbit” and that no signals had yet been detected being transmitted from it. However, it was later reported the tumbling had been brought under control and the orbit stabilized. This indicates that the satellite has established communication with North Korea.

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718

The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718 was adopted unanimously by the United Nations Security Council on October 14, 2006. The resolution, passed under Chapter VII, Article 41, of the UN Charter, imposes a series of economic and commercial sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the aftermath of that nation’s claimed nuclear test of October 9, 2006.

The Resolution’s provisions include: “North Korea must not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile, suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program and abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner”. The DPRK must also “return immediately to the six-party talks without precondition”. “Shipments of cargo going to and from North Korea may be stopped and inspected for weapons of mass destruction or associated items (however, there is no obligation placed on member states to perform such inspections)”. A ban is placed on imports and exports of “battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems”, and “related materiel including spare parts”. Finally, UN members are “banned from exporting luxury goods to North Korea”.