Global Counterspace Capabilities:
An Open Source Assessment
Secure World Foundation
The following excerpts from the report summarize North Korea’s counterspace strategy and its launch vehicle and satellite programs.
North Korea has no demonstrated capability to mount kinetic attacks on U.S. space assets: neither a direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) nor a co-orbital system. In its official statements, North Korea has never mentioned anti-satellite operations or intent, suggesting that there is no clear doctrine in Pyongyang’s thinking at this point.
North Korea does not appear motivated to develop dedicated counterspace assets, though certain capabilities in their ballistic missile program might be eventually evolved for such a purpose. It is unlikely that North Korea would use one of its few nuclear weapons as an electromagnetic weapon.
North Korea has demonstrated the capability to jam civilian global positioning system (GPS) signals within a limited geographical area. Their capability against U.S. military GPS signals is not known. There has been no demonstrated ability of North Korea to interfere with satellite communications, although their technical capability remains unknown.
North Korea’s only known operational satellite launch vehicle is the Unha-3. It appears to derive design components from the Taepodong-2, which was originally believed by U.S. intelligence to be a possible ICBM. Although operational, the reliability of the Unha-3 is not assured. The TD-2 failed in several tests throughout the 2000s, raising some questions regarding both its relationship to the Unha-3 and the latter’s reliability.
The first attempt to use the Unha-3 to launch the Kwangmyŏngsŏng 3 satellite in April 2012 resulted in failure, but in December 2012 the Unha-3 successfully placed the first North Korean satellite (Kwangmyŏngsŏng 3-2) in orbit.
The Unha-3 was used to put the second satellite (Kwangmyŏngsŏng 4) into orbit in 2016. Commercial imagery in March 2019 of North Korea’s Sohae Satellite Launching Station indicated that it may have returned to normal operations.
The Unha-3 is known to be a multi-stage rocket with liquid propellant requiring conventional launch pad and extensive visible preparations. The first stage consists of four Nodong engines, making it too large for mobile use.
Aside from the active ballistic missile and SLV programs, North Korea also has active solid motor and liquid fuel programs and uses both in active missile systems and in development tests. Work is underway on the creation of more advanced rocket engines. This has been evidenced in attempts to create a compact SLBM with two Hwasong-10 engines, similar to that in the Soviet R-27 SLBM, in a single stage, and known now as the March-18 engine after testing at the Sohae Satellite Launch Center.
The March-18 engine in particular is intended as a “high-thrust engine [to] help consolidate the scientific and technological foundation to match the world-level satellite delivery capability in the field of outer space development.”
Co-Orbital ASAT Technologies
North Korea currently possess a very rudimentary satellite development and command and control capability, but they have not demonstrated any of the rendezvous and proximity operations or active guidance capabilities necessary for a co-orbital satellite capability.
There are currently six objects in orbit as a result of two North Korean space launches. Two of these objects are satellites. The first successful launch of a satellite into orbit occurred in December 2012 from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station.
Initial reports at the time suggested that the satellite, along with a third-stage rocket body and two small pieces of associated debris, were placed into orbit, but that the satellite was “spinning out of control” and there were no ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio signals detected from the satellite.
This suggest the satellite was either not under any stabilization or was not functional after deployment. However, the satellite was still following a relatively predictable orbital trajectory and did not pose a collision threat to other space objects.
North Korea launched a second satellite in February 2016, named Kwangmyongsong-4. Both the rocket body and the satellite (pictured below) entered into a stable orbit. As with the 2012 satellite, this satellite was purported to be for earth observation purposes.
The 2016 version reportedly weighed almost twice as much as the 2012 satellite, at around 200 kg. The satellites and associated objects are in a normal and predictable orbit and do not pose a significant collision threat to other space objects.
Neither of the two Kwangmyŏngsŏng satellites is considered to be operational. Both are thought to have failed soon after launch. This is evidenced by the lack of detected signals and instability of the platforms. Kwangmyŏngsŏng 3-2 was reported to be tumbling on December 17, 2012, five days after launch, and Kwangmyŏngsŏng 4 was reported to be tumbling as early as February 9, 2016, only three days after launch.
The satellites can be determined to be tumbling by space tracking radars systems, or even by amateur astronomers observing periodic variations of the intensity of the light reflected from the sun as the objects pass over observers near local dawn and dusk.
Although both satellites were announced as remote sensing systems, it is doubtful if they conducted much sensor activity due to their early failures. The North Korean satellite expertise is considered to be rudimentary, with the payloads likely being capable of only producing low resolution imagery at best, and it is doubtful if either of the two satellites would have been militarily useful, even had they not failed prematurely.
There is no indication that the Kwangmyŏngsŏng series of satellites had any counterspace capability nor that there is any indication of intent, on the part of North Korea, to attempt to develop such a capability. Neither of the satellites conducted orbital maneuvers. Any serious attempt at orbital counterspace would require a sophistication that is far beyond the capacity of North Korea for the foreseeable future.