Explainer-Why North Korea's satellite launches are so controversial

A still photograph shows what appears to be North Korea's new Chollima-1 rocket being launched in Cholsan County

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea appears to be preparing for its second attempt at launching a reconnaissance satellite this year, a move that may prove as controversial as the nuclear-armed country's weapons tests.

A May 31 attempt - North Korea's first such launch since 2016 - ended in fiery failure when its new Chollima-1 rocket crashed into the sea.

North Korea told Japan on Tuesday that it would launch a satellite between Aug. 24 and Aug. 31, its second such attempt this year, prompting criticism from Japan and South Korea.

Here's what we know about North Korea's race for space, and why it's so controversial:


Since 1998 North Korea has launched six satellites, two of which appeared to have been successfully placed in orbit, the last one in 2016.

International observers said the satellite seemed to be under control, but there was lingering debate over whether it had sent any transmissions.

Experts said that North Korea had used a three-stage rocket booster like the Unha-3 of previous launches, but that a new launch pad was clearly built for a larger rocket.

A senior official at North Korea's space agency said after the launch that it planned to put more advanced satellites into orbit by 2020 and eventually "plant the flag of (North Korea) on the moon".

During a party congress in January 2021, leader Kim Jong Un revealed a wish list that included developing military reconnaissance satellites.

The Chollima-1 seems to be a new design and most likely uses the dual-nozzle liquid-fuelled engines developed for Pyongyang’s Hwasong-15 ICBM, analysts said.

South Korea has recovered some of the Chollima-1 wreckage - including, for the first time, parts of a satellite - but has not released detailed findings. Seoul said the satellite had little military value.


The United States and its allies called North Korea's latest tests of satellite systems clear violations of United Nations Security Council resolutions, which prohibit any development of technology applicable to North Korea's ballistic missile programs.

North Korea has said its space program and defence activities are its sovereign right.

At the time of the 2016 space launch, North Korea had yet to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The satellite launch was condemned by governments in the United States and South Korea as a disguised test of missile technology capable of striking the continental United States.

Since 2016, North Korea has developed and launched three types of ICBMs, and now appears committed to placing working satellites in space. That would not only provide it with better intelligence on its enemies, but prove it could keep up with other growing space powers in the region, analysts said.

North Korea could use such satellites to more effectively target South Korea and Japan or conduct damage assessments during a war, said Ankit Panda of the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

On the other hand, if North Korea can verify, with its own satellites, that the United States and its allies are not about to attack, it might reduce tensions and provide stability, he added.

(Reporting by Josh Smith. Editing by Gerry Doyle)