On 31 May, North Korea launched a military reconnaissance satellite for the first time, but the launch failed. Shortly afterwards, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported a statement by the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) acknowledging the failure as having been caused by propulsion loss due to an irregular engine start.
Since Kim Jong-un admitted the failed launch of the “Earth Observation Satellite” immediately after the attempt in April 2012, it has been thought that Kim Jong-un’s style is one of acknowledging failure, investigating the causes, and applying that to future success. In fact, the failed launch was followed by a successful launch in December that year.
However, unlike 11 years ago, there are some major differences this time. Domestic media outlets such as Korean Central Television (KCTV) and the Rodong Sinmun did not report anything about the failed launch until 19 June. And although it was widely known that preparations for the launch of a military reconnaissance satellite were made under the guidance of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean people are not even aware that it has been launched. This provides a glimpse of the disappointment of the Kim Jong-un administration.
The statement by NADA said that they would “concretely investigate and clarify serious deficiencies as well as take scientific and technological measures to overcome them” before proceeding with the next attempt. It is difficult to guess when an attempt will be made, but the statement said “after various partial tests and as soon as possible”, which suggests that there are necessary steps to complete.
At the Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea held late last year, Kim Jong-un ordered that the reconnaissance satellite be launched “as soon as possible”. Nonetheless, the actual launch took another five months. Satellite launches can fail even in developed countries like Japan, and from a cost perspective, launches require considerable prudence.
Even if this satellite could be put into orbit to transmit image data to the ground, it would be rudimentary and far from being used in actual combat.
Major national interest
North Korea has been improving its missile performance and is diversifying its arsenal with its “five-year plan for the development of the defence science and the weapon system”.
Along with the development of hypersonic glide missiles, which are difficult to detect in advance and less likely to be intercepted, and of solid fuel that enhances the manoeuvrability of missile launches by cutting the fuel injection time, there is a desire to possess a military reconnaissance satellite as an “eye” to monitor enemy military movements in real time. Of course, this satellite launch technology can also be applied to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches.
Even if this satellite could be put into orbit to transmit image data to the ground, it would be rudimentary and far from being used in actual combat. It is necessary to secure high-resolution cameras, but multiple satellites are also needed for practical use as reconnaissance satellites in the first place. That is why Kim Jong-un called this satellite “No. 1”. It seems that the regime is determined to continue to improve this in the coming years.
The development of the military reconnaissance satellite is intended to improve the country’s overall military capabilities, but it has also been thought to have the secondary objective of raising national pride over the fact that North Korea is also advancing into space development.
That is why Kim Jong-un brought his daughter with him when he visited the NADA on 18 April and also when he oversaw the Emergency Satellite Launch Preparation Committee on 16 May, which saw photos of the father and daughter widely circulated in North Korean media reports.
While there are very few reports on Kim Jong-un’s activities, the simple fact that there has been a series of reports related to the development of the reconnaissance satellite shows that the launch was being framed as a major national event.
Given that it was not an official statement, it is likely that the main intent of those remarks was to express North Korea’s dissatisfaction.
Venting over failure
Now, North Korea seems to be venting its frustration over the failure of the launch to the outside world. In response to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) condemning the launch, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that the “IMO has been completely politicised” on 4 June, commenting: “We regard this as an official statement of the IMO’s position that no further advance notifications [of North Korea's future launches] are necessary.”
While this seems to suggest that no advance notifications will be given in the future, the commentator that made that statement is just an “international affairs commentator” residing in Japan. Given that it was not an official statement, it is likely that the main intent of those remarks was to express North Korea’s dissatisfaction.
On 1 June, a statement was released in the name of Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un. Responding to criticism of the satellite launch from the US National Security Council, she condemned it for "seriously violating the DPRK’s right to use space and illegally oppressing it".
Kim Yo-jong released another statement on 4 June, criticising the UN Security Council’s holding of an emergency meeting, saying: “I am very unpleased that the UNSC so often calls to account the DPRK’s exercise of its rights as a sovereign state at the request of the US.”
Again, these statements have not been reported at all inside North Korea. It is likely that adjustments need to be made to explain the failed launch to the country’s economically struggling people so as not to undermine the authority of Kim Jong-un, who has spearheaded the development of the reconnaissance satellite.
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