Reflecting on an ‘Illegal’ Space Launch: Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 Four Years On
Updated: Feb 21
Four years ago today the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) launched a satellite. They subsequently registered the space object with the UN. The launch and the registration provoked some controversy. This blog post will discuss the launch and examine the interactions between ‘international security’ and ‘space law.’
On 7 February 2016 the DPRK launched a Unha-3 rocket carrying Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4, an Earth Observation satellite, from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station. The Unha rocket system is related to the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile. The launch followed a nuclear test in the previous month.
UN Security Council Resolutions
Unlike General Assembly Resolutions (UN GA Res) UN Security Council Resolution are binding. The United Nations Security Council has made it repeatedly clear that the DPRK should end its ballistic missile programme (which, naturally utilises the same technology as a space launch capability). UN Security Council Resolution (UN Sec Res) 1718 (2006) demanded that the DPRK not conduct any further ballistic missile launches and end the ballistic missile programme in “a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner”. UN Sec Res 1874 (2009) repeated these demands. UN Sec Res 2087 (2013) went further and “demands that the DPRK not proceed with any further launches using ballistic missile technology…” These were repeated and reaffirmed by UN Sec Res 2094 (2013). While the launch of Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4 may by itself have fit within the DPRK’s right to ‘use and access’ space as enshrined by Article I of the Outer Space Treaty, it was a clear violation of multiple UN Security Council Resolutions. And any Article I OST rights have to be read in the context of Article III OST’s declaration that space activities must be carried out “in accordance with international law, including the Charter of the United Nations, in the interest of maintaining international peace and security.” As the UN Security Council Resolutions above declare DPRK rocket development threatens international peace and security, and must be ceased.
‘Registration’ of human made objects launched into outer space is a cornerstone of the functional aspect of the space law regime. In order to know who is responsible for a space object it is necessary to know who ‘owns’ it and the registration system is necessary to facilitate that link. UN GA Res 1721 first established this principle, and it has arguably become enshrined as customary international law. Nevertheless, the DPRK is party to both the Outer Space Treaty and the Registration Convention and therefore has treaty obligations to register their space objects.
As mentioned, they did register Kwangmyŏngsŏng-4, although the ‘acceptance’ of this by the UN was criticised as legitimising the launch.
That the DPRK launch of 7 February 2016 violated UN Security Council Resolutions is fairly clear, indeed the UN Security Council condemned the launch, but it was right that the DPRK registered the space object and right that the UN accepted this registration. Registration isn’t legitimising the launch but rather an important measure to ensure safety and security of operations in Earth orbit. There is already a problem with too many unregistered space objects, particularly military space objects, we don’t want to discourage registration.
That said, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and the broader efforts as the maintenance of international peace and security are the most important principle of international governance, indeed it is the raison d'être of the United Nations. The DPRK’s rights under Article I of the Outer Space Treaty do not permit the violation of UN Security Council Resolutions, regardless of how ‘peaceful’ such activities maybe. This is particularly important given the inherent ‘dual use’ capability of satellite launchers (although a satellite launcher is easier to build than an functioning ICBM) and the fact that the DPRK has proven time and time again that they do not deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Beyond increasing international pressure there isn’t a whole lot that can be done about preventing ‘illegal’ space launches, particularly by the DPRK, but those of us in the space sector should be careful of legitimising their supposedly ‘peaceful’ efforts. There is a tendency among some to cheer all ‘peaceful’ space endeavours while not putting them in their wider context. Indeed, a popular space webshow TMRO did just that after this launch, the hosts expressing admiration for the DPRK overcoming the challenges they face as a result of international efforts to thwart their developments of missiles and rockets.
It is important to recall the preamble of the Outer Space Treaty, that the use of space should be in support of “international cooperation” and “contribute to the development of mutual understanding and to the strengthening of friendly relations” which, regardless of how ‘peaceful’ any one particular space launch by the DPRK may be, is not the purpose of their space programme.
Part of the problem is perhaps the somewhat artificial divide between military and civilian space that we have created. The space industry is embedded within the defence industry, an array of technologies has ‘dual use’ capabilities, and NASA was, at least, in part, established to obfuscate US military space endeavours. The UN in particular has a strong partition, the COPUOS is often keen to point out that they are the Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space, security concerns are for the Conference on Disarmament or the Security Council which meet in different cities in different countries. As the DPRK demonstrates we should take a more holistic, and to be blunt, less naïve, approach to space governance, particularly in the age of Space Force(s) and political leadership who openly talk about the need to secure strategic resources in outer space.
The opinions expressed in these blogs posts are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for a Spacefaring Civilization or anyone else.
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Melissa Hanham 'Highlights and Initial Thoughts from the DPRK Launch' Arms Control Wonk 7 Feb 2016 - https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1200997/highlights-and-initial-thoughts-from-the-dprk-launch/; Martyn Williams 'Here's What We Know About Kwangmyongson-4 So Far' North Korea Tech 8 Feb 2016 https://www.northkoreatech.org/2016/02/08/heres-what-we-know-about-kwangmyongsong-4-so-far/
COPUOS 'Report of the Legal Subcommittee...' 4-15 April 2016 UN Doc A/AC.105/1113, paras 19-21 (I attended and recall the tone of the ‘expressing of views’) https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/oosadoc/data/documents/2016/aac.105/aac.1051113_0.html
‘North Korea Tested an H-Bomb’ Arms Control Wonk 6 Jan 2016 https://www.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/1200732/north-korea-tested-an-h-bomb/
Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (adopted 27 January 1967, entered into force 10 October 1967) 610 UNTS 205 (Outer Space Treaty/OST) - https://www.unoosa.org/res/oosadoc/data/documents/2017/stspace/stspace61rev_2_0_html/V1605998-ENGLISH.pdf
UN Charter, Article 1(1) https://www.un.org/en/sections/un-charter/chapter-i/index.html
Walter A. McDougall The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (Johns Hopkins University Press 1997), 63-65
McDougall The Heavens and the Earth… 157-176; David Callahan and Fred I. Greenstein ‘The Reluctant Racer: Eisenhower and U.S. Space Policy’ in Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership (University of Illinois Press 1997), 36-39