North Korea Aims To Place Its Flag On The Moon

North Koreans dance under a flashcard display of a satellite during the Arirang Mass Games celebrations in Pyonyang, July 26, 2013. Credit: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

Space exploration was once considered the province of two superpowers, with only tertiary participation from other nations. But since the turn of the century, more and more nations are joining in. China and India, for example, have placed landers on the Moon, satellites around Mars, and are even working on a space station. And as if that weren’t enough, private industry is also making its presence felt, largely through SpaceX and Blue Origins‘ development of reusable rockets.

But in the latest announcement to come out of the world’s last Stalinist regime, it seems that North Korea also hopes to join the 100 mile-high club (the space race, not the other thing!) In a recent interview with the Associated Press, a North Korean official indicated that the country is busy working on a five year plan that will put more satellites into orbit by 2020, and mount a mission to the moon within 10 years time.

According to the official – Hyon Kwang Il, the director of the scientific research department of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration – the 5-year plan is focused on the deployment of more Earth observations satellites, as well as what will be the country’s first geostationary communications satellite.

Visitors takes photos of an illuminated model of a globe at the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: Kim Kwang Hyon/AP
Visitors takes photos of an illuminated model of a globe at the Sci-Tech Complex in Pyongyang, North Korea. Credit: Kim Kwang Hyon/AP

He further indicated that universities in North Korea are expanding their programs to train rocket scientists, with the ultimate purpose of mounting an unmanned Moon mission sometime in the 2020s. If this statement is to be believed, then this plan would constitute significant steps being taken by the isolated regime to establish a foothold in space.

As Hyon indicated in an interview with AP on July 28th, this will all be taking place despite the ongoing embargo and attempts to stifle North Korea’s technological ambitions:

“Even though the U.S. and its allies try to block our space development, our aerospace scientists will conquer space and definitely plant the flag of the DPRK on the moon… We are planning to develop the Earth observation satellites and to solve communications problems by developing geostationary satellites. All of this work will be the basis for the flight to the moon.”

Considering the announcements to come out of this isolated, totalitarian state in the past – i.e. having a cure for HIV, Ebola and cancer, finding a unicorn lair, and having invisible phones – you might be asking yourself, “how seriously should I take this?” The answer: with cautious skepticism. Granted, North Korea’s state-controlled media frequently releases propaganda statements that are so outlandish that they make us laugh out loud.

Still, this latest claim does not seem so farfetched. Already, North Korea has deployed two Earth observation satellites as part of its Kwangmyongsong program, which began in earnest in 1998. Back in February, the fifth satellite in this program (Kwangmyongsong-5) was successfully launched into orbit. And while this was only the second successful launch, it does show that country is developing a certain degree of competency when it comes to space technology.

Image released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of the rocket said to be carrying North Korea's Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite, Feb.7, 2016. Credit: AP
Image released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of the rocket said to be carrying North Korea’s Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite, Feb. 7, 2016. Credit: AP

The Unha rockets that were used to deliver the satellites into orbit are also considered to be capable. An expandable carrier rocket, the Unha relies on a delivery system that is similar to the Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile (which is a modified version of the Russian Scud). What’s more, recent satellite images of the Sohae Satellite Launching Station (located in the northeastern North Pyongan Province) has revealed that an enlarged launch tower is under construction.

This could be an indication that an enlarged version (Unha-X) might be under development, which is consistent with propaganda posters that are also advertising the new rocket. And this past Wednesday, the country test-fired what was believed to be a medium-range ballistic missile into the seas off Japan, which is the fourth reported weapons launch to take place in the past two weeks. Clearly, the regime is working to develop its rocket capabilities, which is essential to any space program.

Beyond that, the success other nations have had in recent years conducting unmanned mission to the Moon – like China’s Chang’e program –  could serve as an indication that the North Korean regime is entirely serious about planting a flag there as well. “Our country has started to accomplish our plan and we have started to gain a lot of successes,” said Hyon. “No matter what anyone thinks, our country will launch more satellites.”

Seriousness or not, whether or not North Korea can actually achieve their more ambitious goal of reaching the Moon in a decade remains to be seen. And it will only come with a whole lot of time, effort, and the country burning through another significant chunk of its GDP (as with its nuclear tests). In the meantime, we better get used to the idea of Low-Earth Orbit getting a bit more crowded!

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video from the Onion, which presents what is only a semi-satirical take on the regime’s space plans:

Further Reading: Associated Press

Breaking News – Controversial North Korean Rocket Launch Apparently Fails in Flight

North Korean Unha-3 three stage rocket erected at seaside launch pad days ago. Roxket was launched on April 12 and failed shortly after liftoff

North Korea has just gone ahead with their announced intentions to defy international warnings and launched the highly controversial Unha-3 long range missile a short while ago at 7:39 AM local time on Friday the 13th (2239 GMT, 6:39 PM EDT Thursday), as reported by CNN, NBC, Fox and other news media on live TV broadcasts at 7 PM EDT, Thursday evening. [Story Updated]

The 3 stage rocket apparently failed in flight quickly and broke apart within the first 90 seconds to 2 minutes and never reached orbit, according to US, Japanese and South Korean officials who have been closely monitoring the developing situation the past few weeks.

Missile tests by North Korea are banned by UN Security Council resolutions.

The White House is expected to issue a statement shortly. Read the official NORAD statement below.

North Korean had invited news media from around the world to view the rocket up close at the launch pad a few days ago, an unprecedented action of openness. But the actual launch and exact timing was not announced ahead of time.

The international reporters who had gathered for the event were caught off guard, in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, many hundreds of miles distant from the launch site.

The failure is a huge embarrassment to the prestige of the North Korea’s new leader, 28 year old Kim Jong Un, who was promoted to the leadership upon the recent death of his father Kim Jong Il.

Japanese Defense Ministry officials are quoted by NBC and CNN as saying the rocket fell into the ocean after flying about 75 miles. The cause of the rocket failure is not known at this time.

Animation of the planned Unha-3 rocket launch. Credit: Analytical Graphics, Inc. (AGI)

North Korea’s neighbors and the West had strongly condemned North Korean’s launch plans saying this launch was really a disguised test of a military ballistic missile that could be easily converted for military purposes and strike as far as the US West Coast with a nuclear warhead.

North Korean said they were merely launching a small and peaceful experimental weather satellite which they displayed to the media days ago. The timing coincides with the anniversary of the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, deceased founding father and former leader of North Korea

The Unha-3 rocket blasted off from the Tongchang-ri, rocket base on North Korea’s west coast near the Chinese border on a southerly course. The trajectory was aimed to skirt along the coasts of South Korea and Japan, causing those countries great concern if the rocket were to develop problems in flight and veer off course and crash on land, potentially causing damage or loss of life in a worst case scenario.

The 90 ton Unha-3 rocket is about 100 feet (30 m) tall.

The UN Security council has scheduled an emergency meeting on Friday in New York to deal with the situation.

There has been no official announcement from the North Korean Government as of this writing.

Further details will be added here as this breaking news story unfolds

NORAD released the following statement this evening April 12, 2012

“North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and U.S. Northern Command officials acknowledged today that U.S. systems detected and tracked a launch of the North Korean Taepo Dong-2 missile at 6:39 p.m. EDT. The missile was tracked on a southerly launch over the Yellow Sea.”

“Initial indications are that the first stage of the missile fell into the sea 165 km west of Seoul, South Korea. The remaining stages were assessed to have failed and no debris fell on land. At no time were the missile or the resultant debris a threat.”