North Korea's Hwasong-14 ICBM. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

A recent article about North Korea’s plans for two new satellites gained little attention beyond its immediate readership. But the article contains a wealth of intelligence about Pyongyang’s objectives if one looks for the real uses to which those satellites will likely be put.

Firstly, it’s highly unlikely the satellites would have any commercial utility, nor would they provide data of value to agricultural or ecological planners. North Korea simply is not developed enough to make use of such information. Most North Korean farmers still use oxen to plow their fields, unlike modern farmers in the industrialized world that are highly mechanized and data-driven.

Continue by examining the descriptions of the satellites provided by the representatives of Pyongyang’s National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) themselves. There are two different satellites to be developed and each has a different mission.

The first satellite is said to be an “earth remote exploration satellite” with a scanning resolution of “several meters.” For the sake of argument, assume that “several” means no more than 10. Thus, the accuracy of such a satellite would be within 10 meters or under 33 feet. That is a fair degree of precision for a rather vaguely defined machine. This satellite would revolve around the earth on its own schedule and follow its own path.

The term “earth remote exploration satellite” is so nebulous as to mean anything. In the developed world, such a vehicle could be used for gathering data on widespread droughts or flooding, forest fires or insect infestations, and the like. How such data from across the globe could be of interest to Pyongyang requires another explanation.

The second satellite was described as a “communications satellite” weighing over 1,000 kilograms in a “geostationary orbit.” For comparison, the first American communications satellite, Telstar I in 1962, weighed only 171 kilograms. Moreover, use of the term “geostationary” is significant, for that describes an orbit around the earth at zero latitude – the plane of the equator – but hovering constantly above the same spot on the earth.

For a country that severely restricts the use of mobile devices by its citizens, it is difficult to see how a massive communications satellite would be of much commercial or social utility. After all, the purpose of such satellites is the relay of radio and television broadcasts, streaming of videos, and carrying long distance telephone calls where landlines are not available. Industry in North Korea has yet to reach a need for applications that require extensive bandwidth. Once again, the explanation offered comes up short.

Hidden motives

In another article it was pointed out that under present conditions it is not known how the North can gather telemetry regarding the final phase of flight for its missiles. Tests to date have not involved horizontal distances great enough for the curvature of the earth to present a major problem. Still, it would seem that some form of sensing equipment would be required.

In light of the dearth of commercial applications for data gathered by any remote exploration satellite covering the entirety of the planet and given the absence of civilian broadcast needs for a high bandwidth communications satellite, one can conclude that the real value of these extra-terrestrial objects lies in their utility to North Korea’s military.

Since the remote sensing satellite is not the one being parked in space over one spot on the planet’s surface, it seems obvious that its use is not restricted to – and probably never was intended for – use in North Korean agricultural or ecological activities. That satellite is likely for gathering precision targeting data and gleaning other information for North Korea’s intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Due to its standard (non-geostationary) orbit, this satellite would likely pass over the United States at least several times a week, noting with some accuracy the various targets of interest to Pyongyang. Movements of military assets and other developments in the world would eventually be detected by this “remote exploration” device.

Additionally, since the geostationary satellite is set to orbit the earth on the equatorial plane, it is unlikely to be for communications activity occurring in North Korea. It is possible that Pyongyang intends to lease bandwidth to other nations in order to generate hard currency income. But it seems equally, if not more, likely that the second satellite is for in-flight telemetry and missile final phase in-flight adjustments.

Since this satellite’s orbit is intended to be geostationary, it will be telling to see exactly where the North Koreans finally park it in space. It is likely to not be aligned within the longitudes of North Korea (between 131 degrees East and 140 degrees East), but far to the east instead so as to provide (a) at least minimal coverage of major portions of the United States or (b) coverage of splash-down areas in the South Pacific Ocean for telemetry collection from North Korean long-range missiles.

Considering North Korea’s long history of subterfuge and violence along with a lack of credible explanations for these satellites, the claim they will be launched for peaceful usage must be met with a great deal of skepticism, if not outright disbelief. Statements by Pyongyang’s aerospace agency notwithstanding, the warning signs are there and we need to heed what they portend.

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