Explainer: Why North Korea’s satellite launch is being condemned

Passengers watch television broadcasting a report on North Korea’s space missile launch at a train station in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 24, 2023. REUTERS FILE PHOTO

SEOUL – North Korea appears to be preparing for its third attempt this year to launch a reconnaissance satellite, a move that could prove as controversial as the nuclear-armed country’s weapons tests.

Earlier tests on May 31 – North Korea’s first such launch since 2016 – and August 24 ended in fiery failures when the new Chollima-1 missile crashed into the sea.

North Korea has notified Japan that it plans to launch a satellite between Wednesday and December 1, prompting criticism from Japan and South Korea, which say it would violate a U.N. ban on Pyongyang’s missile development.

Here’s what we know about North Korea’s space race and why it is so controversial:

Space ambitions

Since 1998, North Korea has launched six satellites, two of which appear to have successfully reached orbit, the most recent being in 2016.

International observers said the satellite appeared to be under control, but there is still debate over whether it sent any transmissions.

Experts said North Korea used a three-stage rocket booster like the Unha-3 from previous launches, but a new launch pad was apparently built for the larger rocket.

A senior official at North Korea’s space agency said after the launch that it planned to put more advanced satellites into orbit by 2020 and eventually “plant the (North Korean) flag on the moon.”

During the January 2021 party congress, leader Kim Jong Un revealed a wish list that included the development of military reconnaissance satellites.

Analysts say Chollima-1 appears to be a new design and most likely uses twin-nozzle liquid-fuel engines developed for Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 ICBM.

South Korea has recovered parts of the Chollima-1 wreckage – including parts of the satellite for the first time – but has not published detailed findings. Seoul said the satellite had little military value.

In September, Kim visited Russia’s state-of-the-art space launch center, where President Vladimir Putin promised to help Pyongyang build satellites.

South Korean officials have said the upcoming launch may include unspecified technical assistance from Russia.

Dual-use technology

The United States and its allies have said North Korea’s latest tests of satellite systems are a clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit any development of technologies applicable to North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.

North Korea has stated that its space program and defense activities are its sovereign right.

At the time of its 2016 launch into space, North Korea had yet to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The U.S. and South Korean governments have condemned the satellite launch as a covert test of missile technology capable of hitting the continental United States.

Since 2016, North Korea has developed and launched three types of ICBMs and now appears to be involved in placing operational satellites in space. Analysts say it would not only give it better intelligence about enemies, but also prove it can keep pace with other rising space powers in the region.

North Korea could use such satellites to more effectively attack South Korea and Japan or conduct damage assessments during war, said Ankit Panda of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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On the other hand, if North Korea can verify through its own satellites that the United States and its allies do not intend to attack, it could reduce tension and ensure stability, he added.


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