During the Cold War, American and Russian space faring efforts enjoyed a level of prestige (and more notably, funding) unparalleled in the modern world. In hind sight, we tend to attribute historic accomplishments like Yuri Gagarin’s momentous trip to into orbit and Neil Armstrong’s legendary first step onto another world as symbolic victories for our respective nations – but in truth, the space program was always about securing the strategic high ground.

It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that Gemini and Apollo astronauts took to the skies on platforms that bore a striking resemblance to the rockets still employed to ferry our most destructive military assets, nuclear weapons, to targets on the other side of the globe. The same technology that saw rapid development throughout decades of the Cold War was employed in our flagship endeavors into space as well as our missile development programs in equal measure, and us we raced the Russians to the moon, we ran parallel races in terms of weapons stockpiles and platforms – building an ever bigger, more powerful barrel to force our enemies to stare down; all the while having our astronauts and cosmonauts grin for the cameras, lending a patriotic and noble face on the very real possibility of world-ending conflict.

This little jaunt through history is of particular import in today’s geopolitical environment because the world stands at the precipice of a new age in space travel. Soon, the United States and Russia will lose their near-monopoly on orbital operations, as rapidly developing nations like China expand their presence in space and even smaller nations begin fielding their own space programs. Space races, and the commensurate military buildup that coincides, may be a thing of the past here in America for the time being, but they certainly aren’t in nations like India, Iran, and North Korea.

Last week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved new sanctions that may potentially be enough to finally force Kim Jong Un to consider engaging in diplomatic talks with the international community set on seeing him relinquish his nuclear efforts. If, and that is, of course a big if, Kim does decide to take his seat at the negotiating table, what can the world expect from North Korea in the months and years to follow?

More than likely, a newly robust space program.

In December of 2012, North Korea became the 10th nation on the planet to successfully launch a satellite into orbit, ushering Kim’s state into the space age using technology that was similar to that employed in their Hwasong series of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Since then, North Korea’s rocket technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, and their space program, though drawing quite a bit less attention than their weapons programs, has continued in earnest throughout, though at a significantly lower operational tempo.

In February of last year, North Korea successfully launched their Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite, and they have already announced intentions to launch the Kwangmyongsong-5 soon, continuing with their slow pursuit of orbital operations. If North Korea finally decides to enter into talks with the United Nations (as a more likely end to tensions than direct talks with the United States) the terms Kim would have to agree to in order to end the sanctions strangling his nation would almost certainly be an end of his pursuit of more advanced nuclear weapons and ballistic missile platforms, and if he’s desperate enough, he will have to concede.

It seems likely that a diplomatic conclusion to tensions with North Korea would result in a compromise that leaves the weapons Kim has developed in his hands upon the promise of ceasing any further development. With hydrogen bomb (thermonuclear) technology already in hand, Kim doesn’t necessarily need to continue work on a more powerful warhead… but he does need a better, more reliable missile platform to deliver it: particularly one with an effective reentry vehicle.

As you may have guessed, space operations often also require a powerful rocket platform with a reliable re-entry vehicle.
Seemingly in preparation for just such an outcome, North Korea has begun peppering state-owned media outlets with preventative arguments in favor of its space program, and the rockets it uses.

A North Korean long-range rocket is launched at the Sohae rocket launch site in Februrary 2016 (KCNA)

“Our satellite launch is a legitimate exercise of the right that thoroughly fits the U.N. Charter that enshrines the basic rights of respect for sovereignty and equality, and the international law that governs the peaceful use of space,” a statement released this week in the state-owned newspaper, The Rodong Sinmin, reads.

It seems almost odd that North Korea, a nation that has openly violated U.N. regulations regarding nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, is so concerned with ensuring the world knows their orbital endeavors are in keeping with U.N. law. This is either indicative of their acknowledgement of U.N. authority only as it pertains to certain matters, or, more likely, that they’re trying to draw a defined line between their weaponized rockets and their space-faring ones.

Logically then, if Kim were to engage in diplomatic talks with the United Nations regarding his pursuit of nuclear weapons, and if he feels his position has been so weakened by the sanctions that have been put into place, then he’ll likely reallocate resources to his space agency. The North Korean space effort could then continue to develop and hone rocket technology that can later be used to deliver his already-developed hydrogen bomb warheads.
It would seem then, then even a diplomatic victory over North Korea may only truly be a postponement of the inevitable nuclear standoff Kim has his sights set on.


Image courtesy of North Korea’s KCNA