Explainer: North Korea’s satellite launch attempt could be ‘first of many’

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North Korea is unlikely to be deterred from its quest to place cargoes in space, analysts said, even though a malfunction sent a new launch vehicle and the country’s first spy satellite crashing into the ocean on Wednesday.

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The secretive country considers its space and military rocket programs a sovereign right, and analysts say spy satellites are crucial to improving the effectiveness of its weapons. Focusing on satellites also shows a shift toward practical rather than political goals, they say.

Wednesday’s setback, which state media blamed on an unstable and unreliable new engine system and fuel, will probably be followed by more attempts, said Atsuhito Isozaki, professor of North Korean studies at Keio University in Japan.

“Even if this satellite launch is a failure, General Secretary Kim Jong Un himself has made clear that this satellite is the first of many,” he said. “This won’t be the end of those efforts.”

Eyes in the sky

Since 1998, North Korea has launched five satellites, two of which appeared to have made it into orbit, including in its last attempt in 2016.

International observers said the 2016 satellite appeared to be under control, but there is debate over whether it sent any transmissions.

Previous space launches were widely seen as veiled weapons tests, and the US military said Wednesday’s launch featured technologies related to North Korea's banned intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

But since 2016, North Korea has developed and launched three types of ICBMs, and now appears genuinely committed to placing working satellites in space. That would not only provide it with better intelligence on its enemies, but prove it could keep up with other growing space powers in the region, analysts said.

“North Korea has traditionally lacked robust strategic situational awareness capabilities, which contribute to its chronic sense of insecurity,” said Ankit Panda of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

North Korea could use such satellites to more effectively target South Korea and Japan or conduct damage assessments, he said.

On the other hand, if North Korea can verify, with its own satellites, that the United States and its allies are not about to attack, it might prove stabilizing, Panda added.

Technical advances, political messages

Takeshi Watanabe, a senior fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies, pointed out that in recent years North Korea appears to have focused on technological needs rather than prioritizing political messages. In the past it has done the opposite, for instance by conducting launches on specific days regardless of the conditions.

“North Korea cannot maintain the credibility of its capabilities against Japan, the US, and South Korea unless it successfully launches a satellite, so it can’t ignore its scientists,” he said, adding that those circumstances could mean North Korea won’t rush into another launch.

North Korea’s isolated status means it doesn’s have ground stations around the world to communicate with rockets and satellites.

South Korea, for example, used a station in Antarctica to make contact with satellites it launched on its homegrown rocket for the first time last week.

“(This) makes controlling and communicating with satellites challenging,” said Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, a US-based space policy and security organization. “It can basically only be done when they pass over North Korea, which for a low Earth orbit satellite would be a few times a day at most.”

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