Explained – Why North Korea’s satellite launch draws condemnation


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

Previous attempts on May 31 – North Korea’s first such launch since 2016 – and August 24 ended in catastrophic failure when its new Chollima-1 missiles crashed into the sea.

North Korea notified Japan that it plans to launch a satellite between Wednesday and December 1, sparking criticism from Japan and South Korea, which say it violates a United Nations ban on Pyongyang’s missile development.

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

Space ambitions

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

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

North Korea has used a three-stage rocket booster like the Unha-3 in previous launches, but a new launch pad was clearly built for a larger missile, experts said.

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

During the party congress in January 2021, leader Kim Jong Un revealed a wish list that includes developing military reconnaissance satellites.

Analysts said the Chollima-1 missile appears to be a new design and likely uses the liquid-propellant twin-nozzle engines developed for Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 ICBM.

South Korea has recovered some Chollima-1 debris, including, for the first time, parts of a satellite, but has not published detailed results. Seoul said the satellite had little military value.

In September, Kim toured Russia’s newest space launch center, where President Vladimir Putin promised to help Pyongyang build satellites.

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

Dual use technology

The United States and its allies have described North Korea’s recent tests of satellite systems as a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which prohibit any development of technology that could be applied to North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.

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

At the time of the 2016 space launch, North Korea had not yet launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. The U.S. and South Korean governments have condemned the satellite launch as a disguised test of missile technology capable of striking the continental United States.

Since 2016, North Korea has developed and launched three types of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and now appears committed to placing operational satellites in space. Analysts said this would not only provide it with better intelligence about its enemies, but would demonstrate its ability to keep pace with other growing space powers in the region.

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

On the other hand, he added, if North Korea could verify, using its satellites, that the United States and its allies are not about to attack, that could reduce tensions and provide stability.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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