Officials in North Korea are working to put advanced satellites in space by 2020, and have their sights set on the moon to boot.

A senior North Korean space official claims that international sanctions will not prevent further satellite launches. He also wants the North Korean flag to be on the moon within a decade, according to the Associated Press.

North Korea
Image source: (stephan) – Flickr

North Korean space official wants moon mission within 10 years

“Even though the U.S. and its allies try to block our space development, our aerospace scientists will conquer space and definitely plant the flag of the DPRK on the moon,” said Hyon Kwang Il, director of the scientific research department of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration.

An unmanned North Korean mission to the moon is seen as ambitious, but possible.

“It would be a significant increase in technology, not one that is beyond them, but you have to debug each bit,” ssaid Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Earth observation satellites a priority for Pyongyang

According to Hyon the current 5 year plan concentrates on launching earth observation satellites, including North Korea’s first geostationary communications satellite. This would represent a major advance.

“We are planning to develop the earth observation satellites and to solve communications problems by developing geostationary satellites. All of this work will be the basis for the flight to the moon,” Hyon said July 28, adding that he wants that to happen “within 10 years’ time.”

Despite international sanctions, North Korea continues to pour money into space and rocket programs. This Wednesday Pyongyang carried out its fourth weapons test in the last two weeks.

United Nations sanctions ban nuclear tests and rocket launches, but North Korea does not respect them.

“Our country has started to accomplish our plan and we have started to gain a lot of successes,” Hyon said. “No matter what anyone thinks, our country will launch more satellites.”

The official said that the intended aim of the satellites is to collect data for forestry and crop assessments, as well as improving communications. The North also wants “to do manned spaceflight and scientific experiments in space, make a flight to the moon and moon exploration and also exploration to other planets.”

Are space and military programs linked?

North Korea has two satellites in orbit, which is no easy feat. South Korea has yet to successfully place a satellite in orbit.

However German analyst Markus Schiller, one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korea’s missiles and rockets, believes that placing a geostationary satellite in orbit might be more difficult than hitting the moon.

“Hitting the moon hard would require less performance – power, rocket size – than getting into GEO (Geostationary Equatorial Orbit), but it will still be quite a challenge,” he said in an email.

Some have criticized North Korea for disguising a military program behind their space program. Hyon calls this view hypocritical as the U.S., Russia and China all developed their space technology out of military programs.

“It is the U.S. that militarized space,” he said.

At the same time Hyon said that North Korea already had military missiles that can reach any point on Earth. The long-range missiles mean that “there is no need for our state to use the space program for ballistic missile development.”

It seems unlikely that this will impress those who are calling for harsher sanctions. However Schiller believes there may be some truth in it.

“I agree they (the military) will not learn any essential new things from launching another Unha rocket,” he said. “Of course, there are lessons learned that you can also apply for the missile program. But the whole missile program shows so many different characteristics that they seem to be separated to a certain degree.”