GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 690, 5 June 2023

North Korea: Nuclear, Missile and now Space
Femy Francis

What happened?
On 31 May, North Korea’s first military reconnaissance satellite rocket Chollima- 1 witnessed a short ride, owing to the malfunctioning of the engine and fuel system. The debris of the satellite fell into the yellow sea after it flew for mere 10 minutes. North Korean official media outlet KCNA said:” The new satellite vehicle rocket, Chollima-1, crashed into the West Sea as it lost propulsion due to an abnormal startup of the engine on the 2nd stage after the 1st stage was separated during normal flight.” This was North Korea's sixth attempt at launching a satellite, and the first espionage satellite mission into the orbit. 

The failed launch led to a panic in South Korea and Japan where they issued an emergency, which was swiftly overhauled as the government's apologized for causing confusion and panic. The launch garnered a wave of criticism where Japanese PM Fumio Kishida said: “Any missile launches by North Korea, even if called a satellite, is a significant issue that affects the safety of Japanese citizens.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres “strongly condemning that launch on 30 May — called on Pyongyang to refrain from conducting further satellite launches using such technology and swiftly resume dialogue to achieve the goal of sustainable peace as well as the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” issued UN’s official briefing. White House issued a statement: “The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its provocative actions and instead choose engagement.”

North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong stated that Pyongyang would soon be successful in placing their military satellite into orbit. She further expressed that the international criticism of their test was “contradictory in nature", she believes: “The US is a group of gangsters who would claim that even if the DPRK launches a satellite... it is illegal and threatening.” The debris collect by the South Korean government found proof that ICBM technology was used to aid the launch and therefore violating the UNSC sanctions. 

What is the background?
First, North Korea’s march towards the Space Programme. North Korea’s space programme started by the launch of Kwangmyongsong-1 satellite in 1998 and only by 2012, its Kwangmyongsong-3 was successful in stationing an object in the orbit but did not have a functioning transmission system. In 2016, North Korea claims to have sent a satellite while the US accused the country disguising the test for ICBM launch engine. In 2017 North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM test launch claims that it could reach US land and by 2023 Hwasong-17 ICBM included technology for Space launch. Ri Pyong Chol, North Korea’s military official stated that in light of US and South Koreas joint military drills they need: “means capable of gathering information about the military acts of the enemy in real time.” This led to them launching Chollima- 1 rocket, their first reconnaissance satellite launch. North Korea has been ramping up its space ambition to fill gap between South Korea’s outer space capabilities. South Korea though relatively young to the space race it has been growing in exponential speed owing to support by US. Recently, it launched Nuri its first fully homegrown vehicle. UAE also announced ‘Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt’ to further aid space exploration, this comes in after two Saudi astronauts travelled in the International Space Station. 

Second, the launch violates sanctions against North Korea. The United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on North Korea to push back against the nuclear missile activities since 2016. The US, South Korea and Japan have condemned the launch by stating that it violates the international sanctions prohibiting the usage of Inter-Continental Ballistic missile technology by North Korea. UNSC strictly prohibits any long- range missile test by Pyongyang. US National Security Council spokesperson Adam Hodge expressed his concerns over the launch and stated that it has raised tensions in the region, destabilizing the security. Furthermore, since the failed launch South Korea sanctioned North Korea based hacking group Kimsuky for being indirectly or directly being involved in stealing data on weapons and satellite development. 

Third, North Korea condemns increased involvement of the US in the Korean peninsula. North Korea blames its actions as vital to deter the US and South Korea front. Recently the two countries have been engaging in joint military exercises and established the “Washington Declaration” which clearly outlines North Korea as a mutual threat. As US plans to support South Korea by deploying nuclear armed submarines in the region, North Korea observes the increased engagement in the region as threatening where Kim Yo Jong said: “The more the enemies are dead set on staging nuclear war exercises, and the more nuclear assets they deploy in the vicinity of the Korean peninsula, the stronger the exercise of our right to self-defence will become in direct proportion to them.” Additionally, South Korea recently launched their first commercial grade satellite “Nuri” due to which Pyongyang feels an urgency to develop its space capacity.  

Fourth, North Korea a regional threat. The country’s persistent rise in developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles have established concerns in the region. North Korea informed Japan of their plans to launch the satellite to which the Japanese Defense Ministry stated: “We will take destructive measures against ballistic and other missiles that are confirmed to land in our territory.” They expressed that any disguised “satellite” launch is a threat to national security and in light of the threat they ordered the preparation for destructive measures. South Korea alarmed their concerns as Pyongyang was able to develop solid- fuel ICBM which would assist in launching long- range nuclear strikes with ease. The aggressive rise of North Korea’s defense and offence capacity presents a looming threat in not only the Korean peninsula but to the US, owing to Hwasong-17 that has a maximum range of 15,000 kilometres, Pyongyang has the capacity to attack US homeland.

What does it mean?
The question arises as to why North Korea’s space ambition is threatening. Soon after the failure to launch they issued their conviction to re-launch and put the spy satellite on the orbit.  Pyongyang observes the development of reconnaissance satellites is vital to deter US backed alliance of South Korea and Japan. They express that the US giant has established contradictory stance as they believe that they too face a looming threat in the region. North Korea never ratified to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and therefore is not obliged to the same rules of disarmament.

Therefore, the unilateral sanctions were imposed, but for North Korea, a usual defector of international law, it does not feel the need to comply with international law/ sanctions. The threat from North Korea’s satellite and space ambitions are omnipresent as the larger ambition of reconnaissance technology is to aid the military and nuclear capability of the country. While the region and international community can deem the launch as a threat, North Korea will aim to develop its capacity to deter aggression. North Korean espionage satellites would lead to breach of sensitive information and that sooner or later, the Korean peninsula and its allies will face a larger threat not limited to nuclear and missile.


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