TOKYO — Specialists following North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile development concur the reclusive state is nearly certain to continue launching long-range rockets which may be intended to improve its capability to fire weapons of mass destruction.
A North Korean official in Pyongyang last week told VOA News that another launch of the Unha series vehicle will occur “soon” as part of the country's “peaceful use of space.” He did not elaborate.
The latest in the series, the Unha-3, carried the apparently non-functioning Kwangmyongsong-3 (Shining Star) satellite into a low Earth orbit on December 12, 2012.
A floral exhibition, which closed Tuesday in Pyongyang, included several small-scale models of larger “Unha-9” rockets among the flowers, reinforcing the message that North Korea wants its people and the outside world to believe there will be additional launches.
The first mention of the Unha-9 was at a reception for rocket scientists December 21, 2012.
The January 3, 2013 internet edition of the Rodong Sinmun, the Workers' Party official newspaper, quoted a scientist saying there would be six more satellite launch vehicles. Reports say the Unha 4 and 5 are intended to launch earth observation satellites, Unha 6, 7 and 8 would presumably place into orbit communications satellites and Unha 9 would carry a lunar orbiter.
However, during Saturday's massive “Victory Day” parade in Kim Il Sung Square there were no such representations of launch vehicles beyond the Unha 3.
“I expect regular launches for the foreseeable future,” says Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
At a previous encounter where North Korean officials spoke with academics and others on related topics, Lewis notes he asked “how many launches North Korea planned and what type of satellites they intended to place in orbit, but the officials did not respond to a fairly direct question.”
A recent report issued by the Federation of American scientists concluded that “according to available data, the Unha-3 looks like a typical, slow paced satellite launcher program, producing single prototypes every now and then. A serious missile program would look different.”
There have been indications the North was preparing for rockets larger than the Unha with major construction at the Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground (the Unha-3 blasted off from the more modern Sohae Satellite Launching Station).
“I haven't seen a clear explanation of what they plan to do with a larger launcher,” says a consultant on the topic to the U.S. Government who asked not to be identified when discussing the subject. He notes North Korea already has a mobile ICBM program and questions why it would really need the capability to boost bigger satellite into higher orbits. “Are they just insisting on a space program as cover for missile technology development?”
New commercial satellite imagery confirms work at Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground remains on hiatus, according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
“These projects - the building of a new launch pad, missile assembly building and launch control center - are designed to handle larger rockets than the Unha-3 space launch vehicle (SLV), able to handle heavier payloads and to fly greater distances,“ according to an analysis released by the institute on July 23. “Work slowed and stopped at the end of 2012. While it was expected that construction would continue this spring, new imagery indicates that work had not resumed as of late May 2013, almost eight months later.”
It is unknown why construction has remained halted. Some officials in Seoul and Tokyo point to behind-the-scenes diplomacy involving Beijing for applying pressure on Pyongyang.
The December 2012 launch came in defiance of United Nations' sanctions. The following month the world body expanded its sanctions against the impoverished country, targeting new individuals and North Korea's space agency.
On February 12 of this year, Pyongyang announced its third underground nuclear weapons test.
The U.N. also imposed further sanctions for that action, targeting North Korea's economy and leadership. Significantly China, the main benefactor of Pyongyang, voted in favor of the unanimous Security Council resolution which had been drafted by the United States.
That prompted the most bellicose rhetoric in years from North Korea vowing all-out nuclear war.
The strident threats have virtually evaporated in recent months although there have been no indications from Pyongyang that it will abide by the sanctions and halt its nuclear and missile programs.
“The space launches are part and parcel of the campaign effort to demonstrate that North Korea has become a modern industrial power under the Kim family,” asserts Lewis.
During nine days of interaction in July with the Korean People's Army, officers made repeated references to their country's Juche (self-reliance) ideology, asserting they have been left with no choice but to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles because of the persistent military threat they face from the United States.
North Korea and the United States have no diplomatic ties. Both countries signed an armistice on July 27, 1953 halting three years of combat which devastated the Korean peninsula.
Since then, South Korea, which fully democratized in the late 1980's, has recovered to become the 15th richest country in the world in terms of nominal gross domestic product (GDP).
Meanwhile in the North, a single-party state, absolute leadership has passed to Kim Jong Un, the grandson of the country's founder and eternal President, Kim Il Sung.
Despite having half the population of the South, the North's economy is 1/30th of the size of its neighbor at an estimated 125th place for nominal GDP, between Papua New Guinea and Mauritius, with trade dominated by primary partner China.
VOA correspondent Steve Herman this week concluded a nine-day trip to North Korea