Video: S. Korea: Pyongyang readying for nuke test

  1. Transcript of: S. Korea: Pyongyang readying for nuke test

    NATALIE MORALES, anchor: And we begin in North Korea where this morning South Korean intelligence officials say Pyongyang may be preparing for a third nuclear test. This as the country gets ready for a rocket launch that has the US concerned. NBC 's chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel , is in Pyongyang with the latest. Richard , good morning.

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: Good morning, Natalie . Today, North Korea began what will be two weeks of official celebrations here. It's all designed to reinforce the transition of power from the late Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong Un . In one of Pyongyang 's main squares today, a sea of people expressed joy for their great leader and eternal president and praise for his descendants.

    Unidentified Man #1:

    ENGEL: What stirred their excitement was this: a giant mural unveiled today of the late Kim Jong Il . And when the assembly was over, the thousands just walked away, orderly, no trash left behind. Uniformed schoolchildren, families and workers simply left. In a nearby park, accompanied by a government minder, Kim Wen Gyong told us everyone supports the state. You think it's a good system...

    Ms. KIM WEN GYONG: Hm.

    ENGEL: ...for the people of North Korea .

    Ms. KIM: Hm, hm, yeah. Everybody, they understand and they uphold the line of the -- our party.

    ENGEL: This weekend, journalists were taken by train to a military base to see this. North Korea says it's an observation satellite it will soon launch into orbit. Officials say it will circle the Earth for two years. Controversially, it will be blast off by a hundred-foot rocket. North Korea calls this the Unha-3 . It is a powerful three-stage rocket, liquid-fueled as far as we know, with enough lifting force to carry a thousand-pound payload. US officials worry that it could easily be converted into an intercontinental ballistic missile , a rocket that could reach the continental United States . The site's director says the United States has nothing to fear.

    Unidentified Man #2: No, it cannot be used for military use.

    ENGEL: Back on the train , NBC space analyst Jim Oberg gave us his assessment.

    Mr. JIM OBERG: The design has weapons potential, serious weapons potential. It's probably already 98 percent of a weapon.

    ENGEL: If successful, North Korea says the satellite will monitor the weather and track forest fires, but it could also advance this nation's long-range rocket capability. Despite international condemnation, North Korea says it will go ahead with its satellite launch sometime between the 12th and the 16th of this month.

    Natalie: Richard Engel with some fascinating reporting there inside in Pyongyang . Thanks so much.


By NBC News space analyst
Special to MSNBC
updated 4/9/2012 8:41:08 AM ET 2012-04-09T12:41:08

When my family first learned of my invitation to travel to North Korea to observe a controversial satellite launch, now set for no earlier than Thursday, their first worry was for my own safety. And as I shared the plans with a small circle of close friends and colleagues, they too expressed concern over the potential risk, especially if I stuck my nose too far into forbidden zones.

I have to admit some level of apprehension. But it’s mixed with the anticipation of getting unprecedented access to the most secret corners of the world’s most secretive nation, to pursue my lifelong passion to “find out and tell about” space mysteries.

  1. Space news from
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

I have quickly come to believe that our personal risk is slight. We are official guests, our charter is to see more than anyone has ever been shown before, and our good will is the central intent of our escorts.

The risk for the North Koreans is much, much higher, and we are not the source of it. In a welcome — if long overdue — response to the anxieties of their neighbors, Pyongyang announced from the start that "foreign experts and journalists" would be allowed into the country.

Tunnel tied to looming N. Korea nuke test? S. Korea thinks so

We are visiting the launch site and other mission preparation facilities, we're taking photographs and videos, and our hosts will try to convince the world through us of the reality of the "peaceful satellite" that is mounted atop the Unha-3 booster at the Koreans' new launch site in the far northwestern corner of the country.

The fact that the North Koreans are looking for this kind of outside verification is a welcome sign. Yet even now, progress remains slow. The launch is only days away, but until now there have been no photographs or even drawings of the satellite whose existence we are supposed to validate.

Shadowy satellite history
The history of the first two North Korean satellite missions is also a heavy burden for the current campaign for "transparency." That’s because, despite Pyongyang's persistent insistence that both satellites were successfully placed in orbit, no sign of them has been detected by anyone in the Western world. No glint of reflected sunlight, no beep-beep of radio calls, no "bogey" blip of radar return. Nothing.

I do not expect any official revision of those old claims. What’s past is past. But the current promises of a renovation in public disclosure policy could be a sign that positive changes are ahead.

Probably the most critical move to establish credibility, aside from our visits, is to allow other outside observers to detect and subsequently announce their own of the satellite to be launched this week. And that could happen, with or without the North Koreans' consent.

Far more authoritative than anything we report will be the post-launch detection of the satellite's radio beacon by amateur radio operators in the outside world. Short-wave listeners are ideally placed to pick up such signals — first in Australia, and then along the west coast of South America, and finally up the east coast of North America. Only then will North Korea have its first chance to catch a fleeting signal, unless it managed an extremely long-range radio reception immediately after launch.

Image: Launch site
This DigitalGlobe half-meter-resolution  image of the North Korean launch site at Tongchang-ri, in the northwest part of the country, was taken on March 28. DigitalGlobe imagery confirms a higher level of activity within the overall facility and significant activity at the launch pad specifically, ahead of a satellite launch planned between April 12 and April 16.

This pathway has been determined by the need to "thread the needle" during the climb into orbit, with the booster’s ground track first just barely skirting the South Korean coast and the Japanese islands west of Okinawa, to the left of track, followed by skirting Taiwan and the Philippines to the right of track. Varying the satellite's course by more than a few degrees would lead to overflight of one or the other of these regions.

The resulting orbit is supposed to be a polar path, handy for Earth observation missions since the dawn of the space age. North Korean officials have said the satellite is aimed for what is called a "sun-synchronous" path, a polar orbit with a little additional retrograde tilt. This allows it to stay synchronized with the seasonal shifts of the Earth-sun direction during our planet’s loop around the sun. As a beneficial consequence, surface lighting conditions — particularly shadowing — remain fairly consistent year-round.

Canadian amateur satellite tracker Ted Molczan has pointed out that the orbit reached from the "thread-the-needle" southern path isn't exactly proper for this synchronization.  It's off by 6 to 8 degrees, a deviation well beyond the boundary of computation error. Either the ascent will swerve off to the west, or the final orbit won’t be exactly in step with seasonal lighting changes. In either case, it's no big deal.

Openness, or deception?
The biggest risk for Pyongyang is that the third satellite launch will play out the way the first two launches presumably did — with no satellite remaining in orbit. But even in that case, if the attempt is recognized as genuine, the new transparency will have paid off all around, and the next launch ought to be less controversial.

Sadly, experience warns that there is at least a possibility of an elaborate ruse. And one worrisome recent possible indicator of such intent has just been seen in satellite imagery of the launch site now posted on the Internet.

Image: Satellite site
Two satellite images from March 7 (left) and March 28 (right), provided by DigitalGlobe, show a storage area at North Korea's Tongchang-ri launch site during preparations for a satellite launch.

What we’ve seen in recent days is that the two most secure buildings at the site, the only two surrounded by their own security fences, have undergone significant changes in how they are seen from space. Where once we saw wide swaths of concrete aprons around them, now those light-gray surfaces have changed color. It looks like a darkish green color, possibly to match the existing greenish colors of the roofs. In any case it has the effect — and possibly the intent — to make the facilities harder to see from space.

In the old Cold War days, this was called "maskirovka," a Russian word implying "strategic deception" to hinder the degree of outside insight into facilities. Absent an innocuous explanation of the color change, it's a disturbing development.

Another nagging nightmare is that the launch fails, and the failure is then officially blamed on enemy action. Considering all the anti-missile systems being deployed along the rocket’s track, it's not far-fetched that the North Koreans would make that claim. Let’s hope that remains a science-fiction scenario.

So this event does entail significant risk, and not just for those of us in the observer teams. The North Koreans are taking a chance, and so deserve credit if the project succeeds. If the satellite works as advertised, their neighbors will owe them a rethinking of attitudes.

Whatever happens, I plan to be watching, taking notes — and reporting back.

More about the North Korean rocket program:

NBC News space analyst James Oberg spent 22 years at NASA's Johnson Space Center as a Mission Control operator and an orbital designer. He is the author of several books on space history and space policy, including "Star-Crossed Orbits: Inside the U.S.-Russian Space Alliance."

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

loading photos...
  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments