Don't look up.
Don't look up.

North Korea’s latest ballistic missile failure does little to defuse the growing tension in East Asia as Pyongyang said Friday it will continue testing missiles in response to what it calls provocation from South Korea and US military exercises.

Each launch attempt is compelling US President Donald Trump and his advisors to evaluate the need for a preemptive military strike and to place tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea.

That these options are being discussed shows the magnitude of the threat posed by North Korea and its goal to miniaturise a nuclear warhead. It also shows why US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said  “a different approach is required” to North Korea during a visit to the region on March 15. 

One new approach is in outer space, more specifically satellites.

By mobilising the satellite assets of many UN member states to increase the volume of satellite-based intelligence gathering, the concealment of the locations of North Korea’s mobile missile launchers would become much more difficult.

The US should call for a meeting in Vienna of the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). This would be to inform the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) of the need for a new satellite surveillance agreement on North Korea as an offshoot of the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters.

The range of North Korea’s missiles.

The Charter was signed in 2000 as a global satellite-enabled disaster response initiative with the European Space Agency, the French Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) as its original sponsors.

Since that time, more than a dozen other national space agencies have signed on including several in Asia. In 2006, the Charter was augmented by the creation of the UN Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (UN-SPIDER).

The Charter has been activated in response to many disasters — the most recent involved flooding in Madagascar in early March.

NASA’S Earth observation satellites, both current and future missions. Credit: NASA

On March 11, 2011, following the massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, for example, Tokyo activated the Charter and within hours a large number of satellites started arriving over Japan from many nations and the private sector to assist support teams on the ground.

China, Taiwan, India, the US, and European countries were among those making contact with Japanese crisis managers at the time. This shows the willingness of nations to work together during a disaster.

Rapid, multi-satellite mapping is now much more efficiently managed via a shared operational framework, and the use of improved technology and imagery analysis techniques.

Assembling a group of nations to conduct intensive satellite surveillance operations over North Korea makes good sense if it can help ward off an armed conflict. And Pyongyang‘s continuing disregard for UN resolutions are signs it is inching closer with each passing month to openly hostile acts.

The nuclear and missile ambitions of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

An attempt should also be made to require North Korea to issue a notification to its neighbors and the US of planned movements of its mobile missile launchers, as well as the time and location of any tests. This may seem farfetched, but an attempt should be made anyway.

That said, urging all the parties to the UN Charter to meet in Vienna to adopt new expanded satellite surveillance of North Korea is not farfetched. While the US, and Japan have access to large amounts of satellite imagery, more coverage is needed.

New satellites continue to appear overhead. On March 17, Japan’s radar-based intelligence-gathering satellites increased to three with the launch of the IGS Radar 5 satellite, which will orbit 500 kilometers above the earth.

Another company that could help is Planet, a California-based company formerly known as Planet Labs. It became a formidable player in February after the Indian Space Research Organization launched 88 of Planet’s so-called Dove satellites.

“Our Doves, which make up the world’s largest constellation of Earth-imaging satellites, are launched in Flocks and provides a whole-Earth dataset that is unmatched,” says Planet’s web site.

Planet said it now has the largest collection capacity and quickest return time in the industry.

China is well aware of Planet’s presence overhead. In the South China Sea, Planet runs extensive monitoring of China’s construction on disputed islands. Planet said it has captured 304,041 square kilometers of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, or an area larger than the State of Arizona. It will soon be collecting weekly and daily imagery of most of the area.

Perhaps more specific to North Korea, “(Planet imagery) can be paired with application-specific classification techniques to proactively monitor large vehicle and aircraft activity, environmental tracking,” the company claims.

On March 8, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China intends to serve as a “switch-man” to help avert any armed conflict between the US and North Korea.  That is, switch the issue back to the track of seeking a negotiated settlement.

China’s participation in the broad surveillance effort outlined here would send a strong signal to Pyongyang as well as greatly increasing the flow of satellite imagery related to North Korean missile activities.

Depriving North Korea of any missile stealth advantage is an essential measure that deserve the attention of all nations that are parties to the UN Charter. It needs to happen fast.