The November 28, 2017 test-launch of North Korea's Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile. (Image source: Korean Central News Agency)
Although North Korea, like other countries, claims that its space program is for civilian, rather than military, purposes, there is good reason to suspect that this is not quite what is going on, and that its government will simply use these capabilities to continue developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of carrying nuclear warheads, to continue threatening global security. North Korea, like other countries, is probably planning to use its space program to militarize and weaponize the realm of space itself.
It is in this context that North Korea's Kwangmyongsong-5 satellite, whose imminent launch was first reported in December 2017, needs to be viewed. The report did not come as a surprise, particularly as two months earlier, North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Kim In-Ryong, told the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space about his country's five-year plan, from 2016 through 2020, to develop "practical satellites that can contribute to the economic development and improvement of the people's living." As Fox News reported, however, "...many U.N. members, including the U.S., fear that North Korea's space program is actually a cover for its weapons program."
According to an article in the Asia Times in January:
"The Kwangmyongsong-5 Earth-exploration satellite, likely to be packaged with a separate communications satellite, will technically allow North Korea to transmit data down to the ground for the first time, thus offering real-time intelligence for potential ballistic-missile strikes.
"This is well short of the technological capacity needed to deploy orbital weapon systems, but will cause some unease among Asian power-brokers China, Japan and India as they pour money into the last strategic frontier of outer space."
In an exclusive interview with The Guardian in 2016, Hyon Kwang-il, director of the scientific research department of North Korea's National Aerospace Development Administration, denied that Pyongyang's satellite research has military aims. He did state, however, that "Even though the US and its allies try to block our space development, our aerospace scientists will conquer space." Hyon also said, "All of this work will be the basis for the flight to the moon," which he hopes will happen "within 10 years."
Such statements made all the more chilling North Korea's 2016 launch of the Unha-3 rocket, with the capability of carrying satellites into space, its July 4 and July 28, 2017 test-launches of the Hwasong-14 ICBM and its November 28, 2017 test-launch of the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which reportedly has a maximum range that would allow it to hit anywhere in the United States.
So far, there has been no specific reports of North Korea developing anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, which are used to destroy enemy satellites in space. With Russia and China developing such capabilities, however -- and give North Korea's relations with both countries – it is not far-fetched to assume that Pyongyang could acquire the know-how to develop anti-satellite weaponry.
If North Korea were able to develop the capability to damage or destroy US satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), it would be a major achievement for the country and pose a debilitating threat to space security. This capability is something that one hopes the Trump administration is taking into account in any negotiations with Kim Jong-un's regime.
Debalina Ghoshal, an independent consultant specializing in nuclear and missile issues, is based in India.