HomeTop StoriesExplainer-Why North Korea's satellite launches are so controversial

Explainer-Why North Korea’s satellite launches are so controversial

SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korea appears to be gearing up for its second attempt to launch a reconnaissance satellite this year, a move that could prove just as controversial as the nuclear-armed country’s weapons tests.

A May 31 attempt — North Korea’s first such launch since 2016 — ended in ardent failure when the new Chollima-1 missile crashed into the sea.

North Korea told Japan on Tuesday it would launch a satellite between August 24 and August 31, its second attempt this year, drawing criticism from Japan and South Korea.

Here’s what we know about North Korea’s space race and why it’s so controversial:


Since 1998, North Korea has launched six satellites, two of which appear to have successfully launched into orbit, the last in 2016.

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

Experts said North Korea had used a three-stage rocket booster like the Unha-3 from previous launches, but that a new launch pad had clearly been built for a larger missile.

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A senior North Korean space agency official said after the launch that it planned to put more advanced satellites into orbit by 2020, eventually “planting the flag of (North Korea) on the moon.”

During a party congress in January 2021, leader Kim Jong Un revealed a wish list that included the development of military reconnaissance satellites.

The Chollima-1 appears to be a new design and most likely uses the dual-nozzle liquid fuel engines developed for Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 ICBM, analysts said.

South Korea has recovered part of the Chollima-1 wreckage – including parts of a satellite for the first time – but has not released detailed findings. Seoul said the satellite had little military value.


The United States and its allies called North Korea’s latest tests of satellite systems clear violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions that prohibit any development of technology applicable to North Korea’s ballistic missile programs.

North Korea has said its space program and defense activities are its sovereign right.

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At the time of the 2016 space launch, North Korea had yet to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The satellite’s launch was condemned by governments in the United States and South Korea as a covert test of missile technology that could hit the mainland United States.

Since 2016, North Korea has developed and launched three types of ICBMs, and now appears determined to place working satellites in space. That would not only give it better intelligence on its enemies, but also prove it can keep pace with other growing space powers in the region, analysts said.

North Korea could use such satellites to target South Korea and Japan more effectively or conduct damage assessments during a war, said Ankit Panda of the US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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, that could ease tensions and provide stability, he added.

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(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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