Space is a Common Wealth: North Korea, China, and the Peaceful Development of Outer Space

By | February 08, 2012 | No Comments

Historical turning points are notoriously difficult to discern, but when future historians are looking for inflection points in the narrative of how military technology shaped the struggle for post-Cold War Korea, 2011-2012 should indeed merit mention. On May 11, 2011, the KCNA asserted an American drone intrusion over the Sino-North Korean border, and did so, significantly, by voicing the Chinese press. (The original KCNA article is here, analysis at the time here). 

The KCNA continues to report on American Reaper drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, of course, dwelled with heavy scorn on the American drone lost in Iran.  Far beyond an easy mining of Ron Paul speeches, pro-drone statements from Fred Kagan at GOP debates, or quotes from Kagan’s drone-heavy Twitter feed, such North Korean stories are constant and they are specific.  In other words, DPRK media has been intently focused on the question of military technology, and, every so often, will mention the DPRK’s putative Chinese and Russian allies’ role in the race. Today, we turn, as KCNA has, to the question of the militarization of space.   

Few analysts are better in parsing this data, the related technology, and its geopolitical implications than the prolific Scott Bruce, the longtime Director of US Operations at the Nautilus Insitute.  We are very pleased to bring you his first essay for — Adam Cathcart, editor         

Space is a Common Wealth: North Korea, China, and the Peaceful Development of Outer Space

by Scott Bruce

Avid readers of KCNA may have noticed the increased coverage of foreign satellite launches and space programs over the last year. The coverage is a marked departure from previous KCNA articles on the subject which came in two flavors, criticism of the US and Japan for attempting to militarize space and defense of the DPRK’s satellite launches. The new coverage implies that North Korea is making the case that it has the right to freely launch communication satellites.

The most frequent countries mentioned are China and Russia, likely due to their highly active space programs, but a range of other countries including India, Argentine, Myanmar, and Nigeria have also been referenced. The articles are generally short and avoid commentary, with a few notable exceptions. Iran, for example, is working hard to “boost the defense capability to beat back a possible invasion” with its space program whereas Japan’s early warning satellite is an attempt to “intensify reconnaissance against other countries.”  In general, this coverage makes a case for the right of nations, including North Korea, to pursue national space programs.

KCNA followed up on this coverage by publishing a white paper asserting the DPRK’s right to pursue a space program for “peaceful purposes” and criticizing the US for attempting to “monopolize space,” targeting North Korea and China in particular. This white paper is curious for a couple of reasons. First, it is very rare for KCNA itself to author a white paper. White papers are usually published by groups like the National Reunification Institute or the Jurists Institute of Korea. Second, white papers usually focus on specific issues related to inter-state relations. The most common white paper issues are atrocities byJapan, theUS aggression toward the North, or inter-Korean relations. A white paper on the peaceful use of space is unheard of.

Additionally, the KCNA report borrows language from Chinese white papers on its space program. The title of the KCNA white paper, “Space Is Common Wealth,” recalls the first line of the 2011 Chinese white paper on space “outer space is the common wealth of mankind.”  While the 2011 report onChina’s space program was published after the KCNA statement, the term “space is a common wealth” has been a staple of PRC white papers on space for many years. Although the two papers make very similar arguments about the importance of space programs, in particular the significance of these programs for technological and economic development, the content of the reports are very different. The Chinese white paper is a comprehensive five year plan forChina’s space program, while the KCNA article is a polemic rant against the US for attempting to monopolize space.

Building a case for the peaceful use of space that is in part modeled on China’s space policy is very interesting. China was the key vote at the UNSC that censured the DPRK for its last two “satellite launches” in 2006 and 2009. If Kim Jong-Un presides over another launch, China may have to decide if it will condemn the North Koreans for a space program that was rhetorically modeled after China’s own activities and policies.


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