North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently visited Russia’s advanced space launch center, accompanied by President Vladimir Putin, who pledged assistance to Pyongyang in building satellites. North Korea’s quest to launch its first spy satellite into orbit has faced challenges with two unsuccessful attempts this year.
North Korea’s interest in satellite technology dates back to 1998, when the country launched its first satellite. Since then, it has successfully placed two satellites into orbit, while launching a total of six. Cooperation with Russia on the peaceful use of outer space has been a goal for North Korea. The most recent successful satellite launch took place in 2016, although doubts remained about the satellite’s transmission capabilities.
During a party congress in January 2021, Kim Jong Un expressed a desire to develop military reconnaissance satellites, revealing North Korea’s intentions to advance its presence in space. The Chollima-1, a potential new design, is believed to use liquid-fueled engines similar to those of Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), drawing on Soviet designs.
The recovery of Chollima-1 wreckage by South Korea provided insights into North Korea’s satellite technology. While Seoul downplayed the military significance of the satellite, experts noted that any functioning satellite in space would enhance North Korea’s intelligence-gathering capabilities.
The controversy surrounding North Korea’s satellite program arises from its violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions. These resolutions prohibit the development of technology related to North Korea’s ballistic missile program and restrict scientific and technical cooperation in nuclear science, aerospace engineering, and manufacturing techniques.
Critics argue that North Korea’s satellite launches are disguised missile tests, threatening international security. Since 2016, North Korea has successfully developed and launched various types of ICBMs, demonstrating its commitment to both missile and satellite capabilities. Launching working satellites not only enhances intelligence-gathering but also establishes North Korea as a space player in the region.
In terms of Russian assistance, Putin’s comments ahead of the meeting with Kim suggest a focus on teaching North Korea how to build satellites rather than providing direct satellite launches. This approach is seen as more compliant with UN restrictions imposed on North Korea. Formal coordination or technology transfers between Russia and North Korea could potentially violate international sanctions.
In conclusion, North Korea’s space program, driven by its desire for satellite technology, has faced controversies due to its perceived violation of UN resolutions. Russian assistance could involve teaching North Korea the necessary skills to build its satellites. However, any direct satellite launches by Russia on North Korea’s behalf would breach international sanctions.