About the Author
View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
North Korean state media reported Tuesday on a symposium being held in Pyongyang this week focused on the country’s space science development, having skipped any coverage of the otherwise annual event last year.
The return of coverage of the Symposium on Space Science and Technology and the “Space Power” slogan come as North Korea has largely refrained from active promotion of building its indigenous space program since negotiations with the U.S. began in early 2018.
This year’s symposium is being held under the theme of “Building of space power and drive for breaking through the cutting edge,” according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
It is “divided into panels of artificial satellite, space materials and elements, space observation and basic science and applied technology,” and will see “more than 180 papers on successes and experience gained in conquering the outer space” introduced, the report continued.
The first time an event by the same name was held was in December 2014, while the annual symposium was then held in late November in 2015, 2016, and 2017.
It is unclear if it was held in 2018, though if it were, it is at least apparent that primary state media outlets such as KCNA and the party daily Rodong Sinmun were not permitted to cover it.
This can be seen as part of other efforts made by the North Korean authorities to reduce visibility of anti-U.S. propaganda, and came after Kim Jong Un placed a moratorium on ICBM and nuclear tests — de facto including tests related to the space program — earlier in the year.
Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump held their first summit in June 2018, where Trump told a post-summit press conference that the U.S. “secured the commitment [from Kim] to destroy the missile engine testing site,” adding this was “not in your agreement, I got that after we signed the agreement.”
A little more than a month later, reports emerged that dismantlement work was underway at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station — believed to be a result of the promise Trump reportedly secured in his summit.
In March this year following the failed Hanoi summit between the two leaders, a senior State Department official told reporters that “launch of a space launch vehicle from that site in our view would be inconsistent with the commitments that the North Koreans have made.”
But those combined efforts to eliminate potentially problematic actions and propaganda may have been merely cosmetic, as NK News has found that, for one, anti-U.S. education has continued outside of the media spotlight.
NK News has also found that work has accelerated during the same period since early 2018 on brand-new, large facilities at the General Satellite Control Center in Pyongyang, under the National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA).
And while the “Space Power” (“우주강국”) slogan had until Tuesday’s symposium report only appeared in state print media once since early 2018, it has since then appeared in photographs obtained by NK News on display at the satellite control center construction site.
The new facilities are in part “designed to further North Korea’s ability to produce more advanced satellites,” said Dave Schmerler, a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, writing for NK News’s sister site NK Pro on previously unreported details of the site’s construction plans.
The DPRK’s space aspirations more generally, however — while markedly more suppressed in state media in the last two years — have nonetheless been maintained in the form of persistent depictions and models of satellites and launch vehicles in North Korean society, and praise of past satellite launches on Korean Central Television (KCTV).
This week’s return of coverage of the space science symposium also follows a recent uptick in promotion of foreign satellite launches and space programs.
One expert said that this week’s symposium on “Building a space power,” together with increased coverage of foreign launches since mid-April, could signal North Korea’s future intent towards another launch.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, senior analyst with NK News’s sister site NK Pro, also raised the common concern that any development of the North’s space program is seen as contributing to its ICBM program due to the nature of the launches.
She said that “although the readout of this year’s symposium suggests that North Korea is interested in using satellite science and technology for economic development, the country’s satellites are known to have connections to its missile programs.”
“It is no coincidence that the annual space science and technology symposium began in December 2014, not long after North Korea announced the byungjin [simultaneous military and economic development] policy and started testing missiles in earnest in 2013,” she added.
North Korea last conducted a satellite launch in February 2016, while NADA officials revealed in late 2017 — just prior to the detente with the U.S. — that it was believed to be planning at least two more as-yet-unseen launches.
Back in Pyongyang, the Symposium on Space Science and Technology-2019 will continued until November 15 at the Sci-Tech Complex.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA