East Asia’s Space Agenda

East (Eastern) Asia is an extremely important region of Asia. Almost one fourth of the world’s human population live over here. The world’s second and third largest economies reside over here, and the region comprises of the only Asian state which is the permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. This chapter and following two chapters discuss the space polices of few important states within the region. This chapter highlights on the space policies of the two Koreas and Taiwan, and subsequent chapters discuss the space policies of China and Japan.

The future of two Koreas has great influence on the security landscape of the East Asian (North-east) region. For many years, the two Korean regimes are found facing both internal and external challenges and opportunities [1]. The future of Korean peninsula mainly depends on the management of internal contradictions within the North Korea and the level of their engagement with the outside world. North Korea’s approach in deciding the future of its nuclear policies would play an important role towards deciding the geopolitical and geostrategic future of the region.

In regard to North Korea, only time would tell whether the mercurial and enigmatic North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death during Dec 2011 could lead to greater instability on the divided Korean peninsula or brighten the prospects of peace in the region. A new era of political rapprochement and economic opening could strengthen and broaden the global development partnership in the region.

The growth of science and technology in both the Koreas during last few decades could be viewed as a mixed bag of intense growth as well as stagnation and failures. The strategic requirement of both Koreas appears to have played a significant role towards deciding the trajectory for the technology development.

North Korea

North Korea is perhaps the world’s most militarised, isolated and strictly controlled communist state [2]. The state has naturally harsh terrain and experiences various natural disasters frequently. The country’s corrupt political (military) system is

A. Lele, Asian Space Race: Rhetoric or Reality?, DOI 10.1007/978-81-322-0733-7_6, 69

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unwilling to undertake any major economic reforms, and their entire focus remains to make investments in technologies of strategic significance. Albeit being viewed as an isolationist country, they have (limited) association with states like Russia and China. These states may not be called as North Korea natural allies, but they do have some influence on them. North Korea also has connections with Iran and Pakistan and over the years has looked at these states for a mutual defence technology and hardware business.

Being a state driven by military ambitions, their investments in the military hardware are significant in nature. North Korea believes that as a pariah state, they need to arm themselves ‘expansively’ to make their ‘presence’ evident regionally and bring in the element of deterrence upfront.

For last two decades, the North Korean government has promoted its nuclear and missile programmes as strong pillars of national defence and prominent symbols of scientific nationalism. This is probably because universally such military technolo­gies are being used for showcasing country’s greater scientific accomplishments. Such technologies along with space technology also become the basis of nationalis­tic pride. For North Korea investments, such programmes are representative of the national effort to build a ‘strong and prosperous country’ (kangsngdaeguk) under the political and military leadership of the country. The term kangsngdaeguk first appeared in August 1998 in reference to Kim Jong Il having provided ‘on-the – spot guidance’ in Chagang Province in February 1998 and is now established state doctrine.1

Prior to the 1980s, North Korea had a clear military advantage over South Korea, but the balance of conventional forces has turned against Pyongyang, especially after the end of the Cold War. During the famine of the mid-1990s, the North Korean leadership increasingly relied on the military to manage government affairs, and it introduced a ‘military first’ policy in 1998 to coincide with Kim Jong Il’s official rise to power. Since economic woes have made it impossible to compete with neighbours in conventional forces, Pyongyang has had a strong incentive to retain and expand its asymmetric capabilities.2 North Korea’s investment in space arena needs to be viewed at the backdrop of military influence on the policy-making practices of North Korea. As discussed elsewhere in this book, North Korean space programme is generally perceived as an offshoot of its missile programme. There is no clarity yet in regard to the future road map of North Korea’s space programme. Space programme could be useful for North Korea in some sense to expand its missile capability mainly in the medium-range missile arena. However, it could be prudent to study their space programme and missile programme as separate domains in order to have better understanding because few issues beyond missiles also demand attention.

It is important to note that the state has established the Korean Committee of Space Technology (KCST) probably sometime during 1980s and is agency responsible for various activities in space from research to satellite manufacture and launching. The agency also manages the country’s rocket launch sites.

On Sept 04, 1998, the Korean Central News Agency broadcasted a report claiming the successful launch of the first North Korean artificial satellite, Kwangmyongsong-1 (Brightstar-1). This very small satellite was launched into the orbit on Aug 31,1998. The initial claims by Russian military space forces about the success of the launch were very encouraging. On Sept 06, 1998, they confirmed that the satellite was in orbit [3], but these claims were subsequently withdrawn. Various civilian and military agencies in the world (particularly in the US) track various activities in space, and they failed to observe the presence of this satellite into the space. It is generally perceived that this was the test of North Korea’s first medium-range Taepodong 1 ballistic missile.

Including the 1998 test, till date (early 2012) North Korea has done three attempts to put satellite in the space, and as per various international assessments, none of them have succeeded. However, North Korea has made certain claims of success particularly with its 2009 test which is found tenuous.

In 2000, the North Korean authorities had unilaterally decided to observe a mora­torium in missile flight testing. However, on the occasion of the US Independence Day on July 4, 2006, North Korea had undertaken multiple missile tests (probably six in number). It has been identified that one of the liftoff was the first Taepodong – 2 rocket, perhaps topped by a satellite. The rocket was launched on a minimum energy-saving trajectory close to 41° out of the launch sit heading in a direction of the Pacific Ocean and Hawaii islands. This was a typical satellite launch trajectory. However, the launch failed after around 50 s of flight. The satellite was presumably named Kwangmyongsong-2.

On April 5, 2009, North Korea proceeded with its announced satellite launch against the increasing international pressure for not to do so. International com­munity, particularly its neighbours Japan and South Korea along with the USA, was of the opinion that this so-called satellite launch was a facet and North Korea has actual plans of testing the Taepodong-2 ICBM. It was announced by the North Korean government that an Unha-2 rocket had carried the satellite. The launch was a failure, and the rocket had landed into the Pacific Ocean.

Interestingly, North Korea had claimed that the three-stage rocket had put a satellite into space, and it was circling the Earth transmitting revolutionary songs. They had reported that their scientists and engineers have succeeded in sending satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 into orbit by way of carrier rocket Unha-2.[83] But, various agencies from South Korea, Japan, Russia and the USA declared this test as a failure. The negative impact of this test was that the North Korea withdrew from six-party talks. They cited the criticism by the US President Barack Obama about this test as a reason for their withdrawal. Obama has expressed opinion that test has violated the international norms and action must be taken against North Korea for this violation.[84]

Politics has always been at the forefront of the North Korea’s space programme. Probably, the origin of the North Korea’s space programme has not been rooted as a need for social reasons but more as a response to the South Korean space programme. Another possibility is that they could have attempted to follow the Iran model to use space agenda as a means to exhibit the missile capabilities. Particularly, during the last decade after undertaking the nuclear tests, probably North Korea appears to have become more ambitious in space arena to use it as an instrument for power projection.

Understanding the importance of engaging North Korea constructively in the past, the US administration had attempted to use the space card as one of the option. During 2000, the then President Clinton had offered a satellite launch deal in exchange for terminating their ICBM programme. However, during his first term of presidency, President Bush had dropped the idea due to verification issues [4]. In the year 2009, Russia had also shown readiness to launch North Korean communication satellites and assist its space programme.[85] Particularly after the withdrawal of North Korea from the six-party talks, now it looks unlikely that the state would accept any international assistance in this regard.

The satellite imagery assessment based on the Feb 2011 images indicates that North Korea has developed a new sophisticated satellite launch side.[86] It could serve the double purpose, either for launching a satellite or it could be turned into an ICBM facility. North Korea has also announced its intentions to undertake manned space flight and Moon mission in the future. Nonetheless, the current status of their space programme indicates that they would have to overcome many hurdles to reach that level of technology sophistication. The basic question which arises at this point in time is: ‘Is North Korea’s space agenda a mere propaganda or they have interest in reaching higher heights in space realm’ ? The answer to this question is probably both.

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