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N. Korea's 'unconvincing' answers to satellite questions

Ryu Kum Chol, deputy director of space exploration in the Department of Space Technology of North Korea, speaks to the international media in Pyongyang, North Korea on Tuesday.
Ryu Kum Chol, deputy director of space exploration in the Department of Space Technology of North Korea, speaks to the international media in Pyongyang, North Korea on Tuesday.David Guttenfelder / AP

PYONGYANG – Officials from North Korea’s Space Technology Committee held a special press conference for journalists today in the capital, Pyongyang. Among the topics discussed: Ongoing questions regarding the possible arming of North Korea’s rockets and the country’s new five-year plan for space.

NBC News sat down after with 22-year NASA veteran and NBC Space Consultant James Oberg to talk about what we learned from this press conference and what questions remain.

Q: What questions did you have coming into this press conference with the North Korea Space Technology Committee?
A: Perhaps the most interesting one for me was how soon after launch they’ll have success or failure in the form of a radio signal from the satellite. The North Koreans said they couldn’t answer that one.

That puzzled me because the primary responsibility of flight control is knowing when to expect indicators of success or failure like receiving a radio signal. Maybe they were just officials and not workers who care about the details.

The other burning question for me was when the satellite was actually going to be loaded onto the rocket and what else might be underneath the payload shroud [nose cone of the rocket]. What they’ve told us about the payload is only about 25 percent of what we think a rocket can actually carry.

They’ve pulled back so much of the secrecy – which is nice – that leaving this one area of secrecy almost underscores the mystery: Is there anything else under that nose cone.

Q: Did you have these questions answered?
A: They gave me answers, but the easy proof for their answers, which would be pictures of them loading the satellite, we haven’t seen. I didn’t ask today, but I want to ask for the drawings of the satellite in orbit to see how the solar panels on the satellite unfold or if they do at all.

In regards to the timing of the radio signal and how other radio amateurs around the planet could help detect these signals, they said they would answer tomorrow [North Korean officials told journalists they would be able to visit the Payload Control Center in Pyongyang Wednesday].

I didn’t expect any usable answers, so I didn’t bother to ask about the possible military value of the rocket, but many journalists did.

The only thing we found out from the North Korean answers was how sloppy and unconvincing their protestations of innocence were. It doesn’t make them guilty of having a weapons-related intent, but they missed the opportunity to convincingly refute that global concern.

NBC's Richard Engel answers reader questions from North Korea

Q: If you were a North Korean official today, how would you have handled the outside suspicion of this satellite launch actually being a ballistic test?
A: I would have anticipated exactly that question and prepared an answer that was credible to skeptical experts instead of to their obedient public. For me credible is not just 90 percent transparency, but 100 percent.

The persistence of non-transparent aspects of this launch process seems unnecessary if there is nothing to hide. All it does is fan suspicions rather than soothing them.

Q: Anything surprising or big revelations for you from this press conference?
A: No technical surprises for me. But I was dismayed that when confronted with questions regarding previous satellite launch failures, their officials loyally proclaimed they were successful despite all independent evidence to the contrary. The officials had a chance to walk away from the question, but instead twice confronted it with assertions that the rest of the world’s space experts consider false.

In my mind this is no way to encourage trust. As someone who is here to judge the credibility of the North Korean’s statements, I was ready to look forward and not back at previously discredited propaganda claims. But they just couldn’t let them go and so it weighed heavily in my own assessment of their credibility and in any future statements they make without strong evidence. 

The other big revelation for me was that the North Koreans said they are planning to work on a more sharp-eyed earth observation satellite next.

Q: Let’s talk about that. The North Koreans announced a new five-year plan that included, as you said, an improved observation satellite and also a stunning declaration that they were actually developing a larger rocket. What did you make of these new announcements and how important are they?
A: They gave a plausible explanation for their focus on earth observation satellites, which was due to a series of environmental disasters beginning in the mid-1990s. But this first satellite seems almost too little, too late to be of much help when one considers you can get the same data this satellite could provide for cheaper and sooner from commercial services.

The larger rocket is also consistent with their announced intention to launch satellites for other countries. Rocket launch services are one of the few things North Korea can export that the rest of the world wants. Unfortunately, the Russians already dominate that portion of the space market and they won’t likely yield customers easily.

As for the military threat of any of North Korea’s rockets, including this hypothetical new one, you have to realize that even having only a handful of weaponized versions of these rockets would be intolerable to other countries like the United States.

But in defense of the North Korean’s current rocket, they have spelled out characteristics that a non-threatening rocket should have. Now they have to live up to those standards that they themselves have set. 

Q: Is this particular mission a logical step for a first satellite? 
A: I’ve come to realize that it is. The North Koreans have given a reasonable justification for the kind of mission they say this satellite is performing. They are still building a rocket that seems bigger than they need and are spending more time and effort than if they had sought outside help, but their governmental ideology has once again trumped practicality.

We’re still not sure if this launch isn’t doing other undisclosed experiments, including those associated with future weaponization and they have not provided enough transparency to eliminate that possibility.

Q: In our previous discussion after you visited the Sohae launch site, you expressed reservations about the authenticity of the satellite. Does this press conference change any of your views on the matter?
A: The press conference not so much, but I’ve done some online research and consultations with associates around the world and I’m now satisfied that what they showed us is within the realm of possibility of a plausible design.

My other concern about the late installment of the satellite onto the rocket was directly addressed with an entirely plausible answer: They didn’t even realize they were out of step with standard practice. They simply did not how other space agencies schedule that type of installation. When the North Koreans say they didn’t realize how other countries did it, I can believe it.

Q: Have the North Korean’s explanation about the peaceful application of the satellite changed your view about the potential weaponization of this missile?
A: No, just carrying a peaceful satellite does not negate the weaponization potential of the carrier rocket. They seem to think that having a peaceful satellite makes them immune to all charges of weaponization, but it doesn’t. The rocket science says this booster design retains weapons potential regardless of what you put on top of it.

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