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View more articles by Andrea Berger
Andrea Berger is a Senior Research Associate and a Senior Program Manager at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
North Korea recently issued a press release containing details of its National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) – ‘the country’s central guidance institution organizing all the space development projects’. International media were quick to deride the Administration’s new name and logo because they bear striking resemblance to that of its American counterpart, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). But in doing so, they missed the significance of the statements, which wasn’t particularly funny.
NADA, and its accompanying flashy logo, constitute a makeover of North Korea’s State Space Development Bureau, which was set up by the seventh session of the 12th Supreme People’s Assembly in late March 2013. At the time, a package of laws was passed relating exclusively to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and space pursuits. The first law was aimed at ‘consolidating the position of nuclear weapon state for self-defense’. The second focused on ‘developing space’, though few details of the law’s contents were given. And the third established a ‘State Space Development Bureau’ – which has now been re-badged as the NADA.
Publicized alongside the law on nuclear weapons status, Pyongyang’s message was clear: we will continue to advance in the areas that the international community fears, namely nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, despite international sanctions against us. Though the 2013 press release for the latter reaffirmed North Korea’s desire to exercise its right to the peaceful uses of outer space, the law states that the Bureau’s mandate is to ‘guide and manage all the space activities of the DPRK in a uniform way’ (emphasis added) – in theory, non-peaceful activities included.
“Pyongyang’s message was clear: we will continue to advance in the areas that the international community fears, namely nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, despite international sanctions against us”
Until now, little was heard about the new State Space Development Bureau. So little, in fact, that there was quiet speculation that it may be nothing more than a shell designed to taunt the U.S. and its allies. This hypothesis appears incorrect. As is often the case with North Korea, lack of information about its activities does not always mean lack of activity itself.
A number of national and international organizations seem to believe that the State Space Development Bureau, officially established in early 2013, does indeed exist in a more than superficial way. The CIA included the Bureau in its report on the ‘Chiefs of State and Cabinet Members’ of North Korea, though it did not identify an individual as its head. The UN Panel of Experts established pursuant to Resolution 1874 (2009) also concluded that the new Bureau will inherit or incorporate functions previously performed by the Korean Committee for Space Technology (KCST), whose representatives helped direct the December 2012 rocket launch.
The decision to replace — in whole or in part — a space technology ‘committee’ with a space development ‘bureau’ (now ‘administration’) is more than semantic. The most powerful explanation for the change is that the North Korean leadership intends to design and implement a space development programme that requires regular leadership and a more robust support organ. Or at least it wants others to think so. Again, Pyongyang’s message is that its internationally-detested space programme is both concrete and expanding.
In this vein, the latest public makeover serves as a reminder that the space development mission has been invested in at the highest political level, and the result is a formal body working actively to realize state goals. This supports the theory that further satellite launches are on their way.
“By modelling NADA’s image on its arch enemy’s, North Korea is simultaneously making an appeal for legitimacy and criticizing perceived double-standards”
That’s not all that is interesting about the re-branding of the State Space Development Bureau has been given by its masters. As the global media rightly pointed out, its name and logo are uncomfortably – in their view even laughably — similar to NASA’s. This is neither accidental nor is it merely a case of uncreative graphic design. By modelling NADA’s image on its arch enemy’s, North Korea is simultaneously making an appeal for legitimacy and criticizing perceived double-standards.
The KCNA press release makes no secret of Pyongyang’s desire to posture NADA as an organization legitimate under basic international criteria. Referencing the law that established the Administration, it promised that ‘the principles of notification, security, investigation and compensation related with satellite launch’ would apply to NADA. ‘The law calls for cooperation with international agencies and other countries on the principle of ensuring equality and mutual benefits, respecting international law and orders for the space’, it said. (As an aside, many readers may not be particularly comforted by Pyongyang’s pledges to cooperate. From the handful of space launch-capable countries, one could imagine that North Korea has collaboration with friends like Iran in mind. The two share an interest in developing larger space launch vehicles, the technology for which can be used for an ICBM.)
Copying aspects of NASA’s logo design is a more direct attempt to criticize international double-standards; effectively, if NASA’s work is seen as globally acceptable, then NADA’s should be too. In case the reader did not take the hint, the final sentence of the KCNA press release is less subtle: ‘clarified in the law is also the DPRK’s principled stand to reject the application of selectivity and double-standards in space activities and the weaponization of outer space’.
While news outlets have found another excuse to ridicule Pyongyang, the reality is much more concerning. North Korea appears to be setting the rhetorical and organizational framework it feels it needs to make visible headway in its space development programme, and cast off international criticism when it does. However, few are likely to agree that this apparatus makes North Korea’s militarily-relevant satellite launch campaign any more legitimate. By creating the Bureau in the same breath as it declared itself a fully-fledged nuclear weapon state, and by handing the organization a remit to coordinate all space-development activities, Pyongyang has already undermined its own efforts. And in these respects especially, NADA looks nothing like NASA.
Picture: NK News