North Korea’s aspiration to establish a presence in space has generated significant controversy and now, potential assistance from Russia. This comes as North Korea has faced setbacks in its attempts to launch its first spy satellite into orbit, with two failed attempts this year alone.
Since 1998, North Korea has successfully launched six satellites, two of which have been confirmed to be in orbit. In 2015, a senior North Korean space official expressed the country’s interest in collaborating with Russia on the “peaceful” utilization of outer space.
Following the successful satellite launch in 2016, there were debates among international observers about whether transmissions were being sent. North Korea’s space agency stated its plans to deploy more advanced satellites by 2020 and even expressed ambitions to have a presence on the moon.
During a recent party congress in January 2021, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un unveiled a wish list that included the development of military reconnaissance satellites. Analysts have noted that the Chollima-1, the satellite North Korea seeks to launch, likely utilizes liquid-fuelled engines derived from Soviet designs and potentially shares similarities with Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
South Korea managed to recover parts of the Chollima-1 wreckage, including sections of the satellite. While Seoul stated that the satellite holds little military significance, analysts believe that any functioning satellite in space would provide North Korea with enhanced intelligence capabilities.
North Korea’s satellite program has faced condemnation from the United States and its allies for violating United Nations Security Council resolutions. These resolutions prohibit the development of technology relevant to North Korea’s ballistic missile programs and establish restrictions on scientific and technical cooperation in various fields.
Since 2016, North Korea has successfully developed and launched multiple types of ICBMs. Its pursuit of functional satellites in space not only improves its intelligence-gathering capacity but also emphasizes its ability to keep pace with other regional players in the space domain.
Ahead of the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un at Vostochny Cosmodrome, there is speculation about potential Russian assistance, possibly in the form of instructing North Korea in satellite-building techniques rather than constructing satellites on its behalf. However, experts warn that any form of satellite technology transfer or coordination between Russia and North Korea would likely violate international sanctions and United Nations restrictions.
The assistance from Russia, if provided, could have significant implications for North Korea’s space program. Nonetheless, the controversial nature of North Korea’s ambitions will undoubtedly continue to attract scrutiny from the international community.