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Inside North Korea: Closely watched launch poses risks

Letting outside observers witness the launch of a controversial satellite poses more risks for the North Koreans than it does for their guests. NBC News space analyst James Oberg provides an inside look.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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."