Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 and Beyond – Narrative and Legitimative Power of the DPRK in the Space Race

By | December 14, 2012 | No Comments

Just as moving away from an object allows a new perspective, Robert Winstanley-Chesters takes some analytic steps back from the hype and politics to find the new environmental and diplomatic “space” that the DPRK has opened up with Wednesday morning’s blast off. – Roger Cavazos, Coordinator

Kim Jong Un Clangers

Given that cranes and bears participated in the funereal commemorative process at the death of Kim Jong-il, which extra-terrestrial beings might similarly involve themselves in the DPRK’s encounter with outer space? | images and text © Clive Banks

Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 and Beyond – Narrative and Legitimative Power of the DPRK in the Space Race

by Robert Winstanley-Chesters

Blast Off: The DPRK Goes Non-Terrestrial | I write this less than a day after the DPRK became only the tenth nation on earth to launch an orbital space craft. I accept this event as the launch of an object into space and not simply a test of missile technology, though granted there is surely a dual purpose in the undertaking, on the grounds that NORAD noted the achievement of orbit in such a terse and grumpy manner that it can surely be nothing less than an entirely unwelcome success on the part of a great enemy.

My first thought was that, given the sheer propaganda value presented to the USSR by the possibility that citizens of capitalist and ‘imperialist’ nations who hadn’t managed to achieve low earth orbit as of the 4th October, 1957 could actually listen to the ‘beep beep’ of Sputnik if they tuned their radio receivers to 20 megacycles, why hasn’t the DPRK proffered the radio frequency of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 so that the world might listen keenly to the DPRK’s transmission of patriotic songs? (Editors’ note: according to KCNA, and Kim Hye Jin, a section chief at the ‘General Satellite Command and Control Centre’, “The satellite is now airing ‘Song of General Kim Il Sung’ and ‘Song of General Kim Jong Il…”)

I am not here to engage in speculation as to how the launch might impact on the geo-political position of the DPRK. The world is home to plenty of people keen to do that. I will also not engage in detailed consideration of whether, in the lead up to winter, a country with the kind of food and resource supply issues that beset the DPRK should expend such a level of economic materiel on such a costly activity. Neither will I attempt analysis of whether it is sensible to engage in such a potentially provocative act about a week away from a presidential election in the DPRK’s increasingly estranged southern neighbor.

Instead, as my research primarily relates to environmental matters and the interplay between the natural world, the realm of the political and accompanying narratives of supportive or presentational legitimacy, I wish to engage with the possibility that such narratives and approaches might be furthered by the DPRK’s move into non-terrestrial (literally) space.

Agenda-building: Narrative and Presentational Developments | In recent years, the DPRK has attempted to reconfigure its environmental and development approach to fit the agendas and needs of external supporters and funders, and in doing so has begun to harness the legitimative potential behind a narrative presentation in which the northern half of the Korean peninsula is portrayed as a place of eco-friendliness and environmental consideration, conservation and mitigation. Following the launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 on 12/12/2012, many of the classic narrative and presentational tropes developed within the DPRK’s presentation of its approach to the natural were on display, such as ‘spontaneous’ street parties- featuring suitably ‘North Koreanised’ traditional musical instruments (see Keith Howard’s work from 2010 on this), and reflective, retrospective glorification of Kim Jong Il, whereby in one KCNA classic, “The successful launch made me sorely miss leader Kim Jong Il, who had worked heart and soul for the scientific and technological development of the country. Thanks to his devoted efforts, our country has joined a small number of countries capable of manufacturing and even carrier rocket…” said the vice minister of health). Thus, might we assume that the DPRK will continue these narrative and presentational developments into the realm of space?

After all, just as the DPRK is a signatory to a number of international treaties and participates in a number of international bodies (my own forthcoming article on the UNFCCC process here at SinoNK might serve as an example) whose work revolves around the environmental and conservational realm, and includes its activities in the framework of environmental action within its broader presentational and legitimatory narratives, might matters pertaining to the extra-terrestrial not play a similar role? The DPRK is also a signatory to many of the treaties governing the usage and governance of space, especially the 1967 “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies” and those treaties from 1971, 1975 and 1992 that deal with the placement of satellites, their orbits and telecommunication technology outside the atmosphere of earth. As the DPRK is so concerned with  matters environmental might it not also develop a position as a partner in the development of legal and bureaucratic approaches to the protection of the outer space environment (a currently much under-regulated area – see the work of Reijnen and de Graaf)?

Regardless, surely the most important element for the DPRK will be the narrative value of its new capabilities in space and the potential for the creation of new objects of legitimative reliquary. The United States of America is a great example of a repeated proponent of the usage of the relics of space exploration to build a narrative of legitimacy. Only recently was the now redundant, obsolete Space Shuttle Endeavour transported through the streets of Los Angeles like an enormous steel and carbon Pieta heading a religious procession. There are also a number of Apollo capsules in American museums; each and every one presented as nothing less than a modern ‘chariot of the gods’ embodying the way in which the American nation achieved moments of true destiny.

Space shuttle Endeavour on the streets of LA | image via NYT

Space shuttle Endeavour on the streets of LA | image via NYT

Beyond the Thermosphere: But Not Beyond the DPRK | It must not be beyond the theoreticians and constructors of the DPRK’s narrative to envisage such a presentation, in which Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 serves not only to assert the technical legitimacy of northern politics and ideology, but to connect such approaches with its efforts and endeavours within the environmental field. It will be for the future to see if the current paradigm of apparent presentational (at least), conservation, concern and mitigation within the DPRK’s narrative might extend beyond the Thermosphere.

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