Here's Why North Korea Wants to Go to the Moon

Totally for peaceful purposes, the country says. 

Getty Images / Han Myung-Gu

NASA is focused on the Journey to Mars, which means the American space agency is leaving the task of getting humans back to the moon to Europe, Russia, China, or whatever other country wants to go. And now you could add North Korea to the list.

An Associated Press report has the North Korean space agency planning an ambitious push to become a relevant space power, which culminates with the planting of a North Korean flag on the moon within ten years.

“Even though the U.S. and its allies try to block our space development, our aerospace scientists will conquer space and definitely plant the flag of the [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] on the moon,” Hyon Kwang Il, director of the scientific research department of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration, told the AP.

The uncrewed moonshot is the biggest goal in a series of more modest steps toward the development of a bigger space presence. Ruled by the certifiably megalomaniacal Kim Jong-un and boasting a profoundly dismal GDP of $15.5 billion, North Korea is currently in the midst of a five-year plan to put a slew of advanced observational satellites into geostationary orbit by 2020.

Those satellites are allegedly to improve the country’s agriculture and forestry assessments and provide a better communications infrastructure.

Orbital satellites and lunar spacecraft are apples and oranges, but sending an uncrewed vehicle to the moon is not impossible for North Korea. Japan, China, and India have all landed probes on the moon in this century. Private companies like Moon Express are revving up efforts to send spacecraft to the moon.

And North Korea itself has a track record of success in spaceflight — albeit very limited. The country has had two successful observational satellite launches — the most recent being just this past February. Its recent spate of ballistic missile testing has alarmed the world — especially nearby Pacific neighbors — but those weapons launches also demonstrate the country might be capable of more regular launches into space.

Nevertheless, North Korea has a lot of obstacles in the way. The country’s history with space travel and exploration is fraught with failure and uncertainty. “Given their low flight rate of one mission every few years, I think it is hard to see them succeeding in this in the next five years, but possible to see them attempting it,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in an interview with the AP.

Plus, UN-imposed economic and trade sanctions — a response to nuclear tests and rocket launches — have severely hampered what the country is able to build.

And yet, Kim and his cabal only seem more emboldened to carry on. “Our country has started to accomplish our plan and we have started to gain a lot of successes,” said Hyon. “No matter what anyone thinks, our country will launch more satellites.” He adamantly insists the space program has no military purposes.

Given North Korea’s track record with — well, everything — that claim is pretty difficult to believe.

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