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North Korea’s Satellites: Smokescreen for Missile Tests or Just Propaganda?

North Korea’s space ambitions are sky-high, but they are unlikely to materialise in the short term to a militarily useful degree. In the meantime, announcements of its plans represent an effective propaganda tool.

Aiming high: a satellite launch site in North Korea. Image: Reuters / Alamy

The latest in a series of launches conducted by North Korea in late February and early March reignited questions around the country’s motivations for a space programme. The main accusation is that the tests are a smokescreen for further attempts at bolstering its missile programme, rather than reflecting a genuine determination to expand its space capabilities.

Previous official statements mostly placed the country’s venture into space in peaceful territory, but a party congress in January 2021 saw Kim Jong Un express his wish to develop military reconnaissance satellites. Further work on developments for the military use of space were revealed during a missile exhibition in Pyongyang. According to the North Korean news agency NCKA, the purpose of the reconnaissance satellites would be to keep an eye on the ‘aggression troops’ of the US in South Korea, Japan and the Pacific.

The latest tests could suggest that North Korean ambitions for space are genuine – the simple reason being that sovereign intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities are especially necessary for a country as isolated as North Korea. Space-based intelligence gathering has become a staple tool – a development recently highlighted by the war in Ukraine. While smaller (space) powers are able to rely on their allies or even commercial providers for this type of information, the situation is trickier for a country like North Korea. Therefore, a sovereign capability is the only guaranteed way to ensure a steady and reliable stream of information whenever it becomes necessary.

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

Building an effective ISR constellation will take time, and the sanctions against North Korea will further hinder progress. This is due to the limitations of the currently known space capabilities of North Korea: while it has placed two satellites in orbit so far, neither are considered operational – no signals have been detected from either asset since a few days after their launch. Meanwhile, the promised earth observation satellites would need to be fitted with cameras, be steady enough for precise imagery, and have a stable signal in order to send the footage back down to Earth. The most recent tests conducted by North Korea in late February and early March 2022 seem to have tested parts of the satellite; official statements announced that the launch had been conducted to test components related to the ‘photographing system, data transmission system and altitude control devices’.

The announcement of space ambitions represents a useful propaganda tool for North Korea’s leadership, as it gives the appearance of utilising cutting-edge technology

An ISR constellation as envisaged by North Korea requires consistent maintenance to be operational, in the form of regular launches, space situational awareness capabilities, and command and control. While a working ISR programme within the next 5 years – as statements had hoped for – remains doubtful, one thing is clear: a space programme is extremely useful for propaganda purposes.

Out of This World Propaganda

While planning for an ISR constellation, the party is already reaping the benefits of the propaganda opportunities that the launches provide. After all, space programmes have been used to display military strength since the Cold War. On a personal level, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is keen to present himself as tech-savvy. An ISR constellation and further plans for the space domain lend his rule an air of modernity and technological progress – especially since space is present in the military planning of most Western countries, to varying degrees of novelty.

What Next?

While we cannot expect North Korea to launch a functioning ISR constellation in the near future, the announcement of its ambitions represents a useful propaganda tool for the country’s leadership, as it gives the appearance of utilising cutting-edge technology. While a sovereign ISR capability is a national security necessity for an isolated country like North Korea, space-based tools are unlikely to be the sole (reliable) source of information for its leadership anytime soon, given that an effective ISR constellation requires continuous launches and maintenance and therefore extensive resources that are not currently available to the country. In the meantime, test launches continue to be an excellent opportunity for the country and its leadership to create the illusion of modernity.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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