Kim Jong Un’s Trip to Russia May Help Him Put Spy Satellites in Orbit

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is returning from Russia with pledges to help with his space program that could finally allow his country to reach its long-held goal of placing multiple satellites in orbit.

(Bloomberg) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is returning from Russia with pledges to help with his space program that could finally allow his country to reach its long-held goal of placing multiple satellites in orbit.

Kim was presented with options for cooperation when he met President Vladimir Putin last week at Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome space center, including assistance in building satellites and firing them off on Russian rockets. The official Korean Central News Agency said Monday that Kim has successfully completed “the schedule of his official goodwill visit to the Russian Federation.”

North Korea has tried seven times over the past 25 years to put a satellite — five of the missions crashed into the bottom of the sea and two put something in space, albeit with questionable operating status. The assistance from Russia could help North Korea turn the corner, giving them eyes in the sky to monitor the movements of troops from the US and its allies in the region.

“Satellites are vital to modern military operations and intelligence gathering,” said David Schmerler, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. “As North Korea modernizes their strategic and tactical forces, modernizing their ability to leverage space-based sensors and data is a natural progression.”

North Korea failed twice this year to put a satellite into orbit on a new space rocket it rolled out. Russia’s space program, which is more than half a century old and has a proven track record, was once tapped by South Korea for sending its satellites into space.

Schmerler said North Korea is looking to develop its domestic launch capability and may seek help from Russia to do that. It may entertain “the possibility of using a Russian launch service as an alternative until they flesh out their own program, or attempt to launch larger satellites,” he added.

Russia could also offer help and technology to boost the performance of a North Korean satellite. South Korea salvaged one of the failed spy satellites from the sea that Kim’s regime tried to put into orbit this year and concluded that the technology had little military value.

Read: South Korea Salvages North’s Satellite in Intelligence Win

Russian aid “will likely make obtaining materials needed for more sophisticated satellites much easier. Meaning their satellite designs could evolve in complexity at a faster rate, in comparison to having to source the tech, designs, and materials at home,” Schmerler said.

Russia may also offer bigger launch vehicles than North Korea, “offering higher payload mass to orbit, if desired,” said Markus Schiller, an aerospace engineer who founded the ST Analytics consultancy in Germany that specializes in space technology.

Due to its relatively small area, North Korea has limited access to gaining data from satellites from ground tracking stations or intersatellite links, he said. “Access to Russian assets might change that,” said Schiller.

In exchange, North Korea could provide badly needed munitions for Putin’s war in Ukraine. The US has said a potential arms deal would be a focus of Kim’s visit. North Korea sits on vast stories of artillery shells and rockets that can work with Soviet-era weapons the Kremlin has deployed on the front lines.

But North Korea is barred by United Nations Security Council resolutions from conducting ballistic missile tests. The US and its partners have warned that technology derived from North Korea’s space program could be used to advance its ballistic missiles, and warned that any help Putin offers Kim would violate measures that Russia had voted to approve.

Still, North Korea and Russia may argue that every country is entitled to a civilian space program and cooperation would not violate any international accords. 

Kim appeared impressed by his visit to the space center and the state’s official media said he left this message in its guest book: “The glory of Russia that produced the first conquerors of space will be immortal.” 

–With assistance from Seyoon Kim.

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