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Sohae
The author at North Korea’s Sohae launch site in 2012. (credit: J. Oberg)

It’s vital to verify the harmlessness of North Korea’s next satellite


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A few short years ago I stood within spitball range of what purported to be North Korea’s “peaceful Earth observation” satellite. As part of a small cadre of foreign journalists, I was there, for my client NBC News, to be shown the launch of the satellite and the proof it was not military in nature.

We had made the three-hour train ride from Pyongyang to the far northwest corner of the country, where the Sohae space launch base was located. No foreigner had ever been there before, and none has visited since.

And among that group, I was the only real “rocket scientist”: a professional spaceflight engineer. I’d been with the space shuttle program for 30 years at Mission Control in Houston, and now, retired, I was a “space consultant” for NBC News.

Four days later, while waiting in the hotel conference room for a planned sightseeing tour, we suddenly got word from colleagues in Tokyo that the US Defense Department had announced that the rocket had just been launched—and, moments later, that it had blown up.

An hour after seeing the dolly-mounted satellite, we were on a football-field-sized concrete apron, walking to within slingshot range of the rocket that was to carry it into orbit in a few days. Then it was back to our hotel in Pyongyang to await the call to actually watch the launch, probably on television.


But the call never came. Four days later, while waiting in the hotel conference room for a planned sightseeing tour, we suddenly got word from colleagues in Tokyo that the US Defense Department had announced that the rocket had just been launched—and, moments later, that it had blown up.

Our impassive hosts never told us anything, or mentioned the word “space” again: we were suddenly in Pyongyang to join in a celebration of the Kim dynasty, all thoughts of space launches banished. It was right out of Orwell’s 1984.

As an expert consultant, I had been tasked by my client to see not just what we were being show but, more importantly, what we were not being shown. From what I saw there then, and later from outside North Korea, I’ve seen plenty of what they didn’t want us to.


The charade that Pyongyang’s satellite program was purely for peaceful space exploration and applications was pitifully transparent from the start. The real mystery was what was the true unseen purpose of the enormous expense that the government was pouring into the program.

Since our visit, two North Korean satellites have actually made it successfully into orbit. Both of them were duds, never transmitting any signals that anyone outside the country could hear. But besides those non-successes, Pyongyang poured fabulous efforts into building a rebuilding control facilities and museums and shrines to the Kim dynasty at the space sites—and totally rebuilding the launch pad. For mere satellite launches, that would have been extravagant even for a rich country.


Meanwhile, there have been fears expressed that North Korea might use a satellite to carry a small nuclear warhead into orbit and then detonate it over the United States for an EMP strike. These concerns seem extreme and require an astronomical scale of irrationality on the part of the regime. The most frightening aspect, I’ve come to realize, is that exactly such a scale of insanity is now evident in the rest of their “space program.”

That doomsday scenario, it now seems, has become plausible enough to compel the United States to take active measures to insure that no North Korean satellite, unless thoroughly inspected before launch, be allowed to reach orbit and ever overfly the United States. The rationale for this extreme stand is as follows.

After all, of all the potential explanations for the program, the very least likely is the “official” one, that it is intended to provide images of agricultural areas to improve crop yield. That is certainly a legitimate purpose elsewhere in the world where large countries can survey vast territories with spacecraft.


What is much more likely is that the spaceflight effort is a Potemkin facade, to glorify the Kim regime in its own eyes and for domestic propaganda.

But North Korea is small country to start with, with limited agricultural space. Airborne sensors could easily cover all required regions with greater flexibility and far lower cost. And commercial Earth observation satellites already exist willing to sell supplemental imagery at all conceivable wavelengths. The US might even offer to provide such imagery at its own expense.

What is much more likely is that the spaceflight effort is a Potemkin facade, to glorify the Kim regime in its own eyes and for domestic propaganda. The satellite project started out that way with two failed launchings that were proclaimed glorious successes, with crowds of people taken outside in the evenings to ooh and aah in adoration as the “satellite” crossed the skies above their heads—nobody dared to say they couldn’t see anything.

On our visit in 2012 we saw two control facilities, one at the Sohae launch site, for the rocket, and the other a bit northeast of Pyongyang, for the satellites. They were modest but entirely adequate, in my view.

But by the time of the next launch in late 2012, publicity images showed both had been entirely redesigned. Consoles from one had been moved into the other, and new consoles installed in the first one.

By the time of the most recent launch a year ago, an entirely new control room had been built in downtown Pyongyang encircled by a vast paved area one Western journalist hilariously called a “parking lot”—North Korean space workers come to the office by bus or by bike—and a rostrum for Kim to stand outside in front of cheering crowds.

The former launch control center at the rocket base had been gutted and rebuilt into a memorial museum to the Kim dynasty’s leadership of space successes, so an entirely new launch control center had been built on a nearby hillside, ten times the size of the first and with vast viewing and parade-reviewing galleries for Kim to be glorified in.

Considering the hideous cost to the population, the suggestion that the entire program is regime-glorifying fakery is appalling, but it may be the best-case scenario.

That’s because of other things we are now seeing, that are related to things that we are supposed not to see: launch preparations and identification markers on the potential future payloads. They will be concealed.

On the very first pass around Earth, after crossing near Antarctica, the satellite tracks northwards off the west coast of South America, over the Caribbean, and right up the US East Coast. Sixty-five minutes after launch, it’s passing a few hundred miles west of Washington DC.

As seen in commercial satellite images of the launch site, verified by propaganda videos of the launch a year ago, there have been significant changes to the pad area, all with concealment in mind. At the longer-than-a-football-field concrete pad itself, where I had paced back and forth to the full extent of the security fences, photographing everything in all directions, the entire eastern edge was excavated to install an underground rail line.

The roof of that tunnel has removable doors, and a massive rail-mounted mobile support structure has been added to receive the rail cargo entirely out of sight of overhead observation. That mobile hangar then moves it northwards to the launch pad, where it can be erected behind walls installed the entire height of the gantry tower. A similar roof was also erected at the unloading spur a mile (1.6 kilometers) away at the booster assembly building, preventing detection of space hardware anywhere along its delivery route.

These certainly don’t convey the appearance of the features of a peaceful, harmless space program, and could possibly indicate something far more ominous.

The Sohae launch site is geographically suitable for southward launches into near polar orbits, not crossing any other national boundaries for thousands of miles. The orbit chosen is indeed one suitable for Earth resources observations, lending plausibility to what might be a cover story. But it’s also about the only orbit reachable from this launch site that doesn’t overfly neighboring countries.

There’s another feature of the orbit, possibly accidental, possibly not. It’s determined by the immutable laws of orbital motion, my specialty in Mission Control for more than 20 years. On the very first pass around Earth, after crossing near Antarctica, the satellite tracks northwards off the west coast of South America, over the Caribbean, and right up the US East Coast. Sixty-five minutes after launch, it’s passing a few hundred miles west of Washington DC. And with a minor steering adjustment during launch it could pass right overhead.

What might be inside that half-ton package is literally anybody’s guess. That is might be a functioning applications satellite for the betterment of the population is harder and harder to believe. That it might be something harmful—and no heat shield would be needed if it were supposed to be triggered in space—is getting terrifyingly easier to consider.

So knowing what’s aboard that satellite becomes a vital issue of national security. And my personal experience in North Korea on that very question troubles me more and more.

At the satellite control center we visited in 2012 a few days after the launch site visit, I was the guest of honor of the center director, since I was the only genuine “rocket scientist” attached to the press tour. He took me upstairs to the viewing gallery and we sat side by side in conversation, with photographs of us together soon spread all over North Korean media.

Exasperated, he retorted, “Do you want us to install a chair for you to sit on, atop the rocket?” I accepted immediately, and laughed. He didn’t.

I calibrated his operational knowledge with a few questions I already knew the answers to, such as how soon after launch they’d be able to get the first signals (11 hours—he got it right.) Then I raised the serious issue of what was going to be on top of the rocket we had seen a few days earlier, since it might have been a warhead test or other secret cargo.

He assured me it was the satellite we had seen. I pressed for evidence, even photos or videos of the satellite at the launch pad being moved onto the tip of the rocket. He promised to send such photos to my hotel. I pressed the issue.

Exasperated, he retorted, “Do you want us to install a chair for you to sit on, atop the rocket?” I accepted immediately, and laughed. He didn’t, but repeated his promise to send photos. Of course, he never did, and I was not surprised. No such photos of the payload installation on any such satellite launch have ever been released.

For me, the issue was merely a point of technical curiosity, as well as pushing to see where I encountered resistance. But now that North Korea can build unshielded nuclear weapons that could fit into that same payload shroud and wind up in orbit an hour away from American airspace, the issue has become a lot more vital, and pressing.

In my view, the US needs to consider whether we can ever risk letting an absolutely unknown payload from North Korea ever fly across the United States again, and how we can be confident that the next satellite launch is carrying a non-hazardous cargo. For our once-in-a-lifetime visit in 2012, the North Koreans promised to prove their peaceful intent, and failed. We still need that promise to be fulfilled.

Somebody we can trust needs to be watching whatever the North Koreans mount on their next satellite rocket. Or we have to be ready to act based on valid suspicions and on the potentially all-too-terrible cost of relying entirely on hoping for the best from a madman.


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