North Korean space officials are hard at work on a five-year plan to put more advanced satellites into orbit by 2020, and don't intend to stop there: They're also aiming for the moon, and beyond.
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In an interview with The Associated Press, a senior official at the North's version of NASA said international sanctions won't stop Pyongyang from launching more satellites by 2020, and that he hopes to see the North Korean flag on the moon within the next 10 years.
"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," said Hyon Kwang Il, director of the scientific research department of North Korea's National Aerospace Development Administration. The North's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
An unmanned, no-frills North Korean moon mission in the not-too-distant future isn't as far-fetched as it might seem. Outside experts say it's ambitious, but conceivable. While the U.S. is the only country to have conducted manned lunar missions, other nations have sent unmanned spacecraft there and have in that sense planted their flags.
"It would be a significant increase in technology, not one that is beyond them, but you have to debug each bit," Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who maintains an exhaustive blog on international satellites and satellite launches, said in an email to the AP.
Hyon said the current five-year plan, at the order of leader Kim Jong Un, focuses on launching more earth observation satellites and what would be its first geostationary communications satellite — which, technologically, would be a major step forward. He said universities are also expanding programs to train rocket scientists.
"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," Hyon said July 28, adding that he personally would like to see that happen "within 10 years' time."
North Korea has marked a number of successes in its space program — and, of course, in its development of ever-more-sophisticated long-range missiles for military use. On Wednesday, it test-fired what was believed to be a medium-range ballistic missile into the seas off Japan, the fourth reported weapons launch the North has carried out in about two weeks.
It launched its latest satellite — the Kwangmyongsong 4, or Brilliant Star 4 — into orbit on February 7, just one month after conducting what it claims was its first H-bomb test.
That brought new sanctions because nuclear tests and rocket launches, which can have military applications, are banned under United Nations resolutions.
Hyon said the sanctions are "ridiculous." "Our country has started to accomplish our plan and we have started to gain a lot of successes," he said. "No matter what anyone thinks, our country will launch more satellites."
He said Pyongyang's long-term target is to use its satellites to provide data for crop and forestry assessments and improved communications. The North also intends "to do manned spaceflight and scientific experiments in space, make a flight to the moon and moon exploration and also exploration to other planets."
The U.S. made its first lunar flyby in 1959, though it took eight more years and several failed attempts to succeed with a lunar orbiter. The USSR made its first moon shot after only three successful Sputnik satellites. Their probe — just a year and a half after Sputnik 1 — reached the moon, but missed its orbit.
"So it's not ridiculous to attempt a moon mission early in your space program," McDowell said. "Given their low flight rate of one mission every few years, I think it is hard to see them succeeding in this in the next five years, but possible to see them attempting it," he said.
The North currently has two satellites in orbit, KMS-3-2 and KMS-4. It put its first satellite in orbit in 2012, a feat few other countries have ever achieved. Rival South Korea, for example, has yet to do so.
Hyon said that as of July 27, KMS-4 had completed 2,513 orbits, and that within one day after its launch it transmitted 700 photographic images back to earth. He said it is still working properly and sending data whenever it passes over North Korea, which is four times a day.
Foreign experts have yet to confirm any communications from the satellite.
"There's been no independent evidence that KMS-4 sent data back, but no evidence that it didn't, either," McDowell said.
German analyst Markus Schiller, one of the world's foremost experts on North Korea's missiles and rockets, said a geostationary satellite might be a more ambitious goal for Pyongyang than a lunar flyby or crash-landing.
"Hitting the moon hard would require less performance — power, rocket size — than getting into GEO [Geostationary Equatorial Orbit], but it will still be quite a challenge," he said in an email from Munich, where he is based.
"Judging from what I have seen so far with their space program, it will take North Korea about a decade or more to get to lunar orbit at best — if they really pursue this mission," he said. "My personal guess, however, is that they might try but they will fail, and we will not see a successful North Korea lunar orbiter for at least two decades, if ever."
Hyon said claims that the North's space plan is a military program in disguise are hypocritical, considering the history of space exploration. The U.S., Russia and China all built their space programs out of military technology. Many of the rockets they use today were initially developed as intercontinental ballistic missiles. "It is the U.S. that militarized space," he said.
He said the North Korean military has already succeeded in developing long-range missiles that can reach anywhere on Earth, "especially to American territory," and so "there is no need for our state to use the space program for ballistic missile development."
That argument isn't likely to sway sanctions advocates in Washington or Seoul. But Schiller said the claim is plausible, given the advances in weaponry the North has displayed through its overtly military missile tests and the specific designs of the Unha rockets that are used to launch its satellites.
"I agree they [the military] will not learn any essential new things from launching another Unha rocket," he said. "Of course, there are lessons learned that you can also apply for the missile program. But the whole missile program shows so many different characteristics that they seem to be separated to a certain degree."