Just two months ago, amid celebrations of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, an Iranian rocket roared off a military launch pad and placed a 50kg Earth observation satellite into orbit. The US Department of State grumbled about possible missile applications, but that was pretty much it.
Now it’s North Korea’s turn. As it prepares to launch a rocket to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birthday of its founder, it, too, is telling the world that its goal is to get a satellite into orbit. It is even promising to give international observers front-row seats at its newly built launch facility — just like Iran did in February.
However, the international condemnation is much louder over the satellite launch North Korea plans sometime between Thursday and Monday next week. The US is promising to scrap a just-signed food aid deal if the rocket is launched. Tokyo and Seoul have vowed to shoot it down if it veers off course. Russia and China, which have long-standing ties with the North, have urged Pyongyang to rethink its plans.
Though the international community is concerned about both countries’ satellite launches, which require technology also needed to launch missiles, Pyongyang’s efforts are seen as a greater threat, in part because it is already believed to be capable of producing nuclear weapons.
Experts are also more skeptical of North Korea’s claim that its launch is a scientific mission. It has nothing to show for nearly 15 years of off-and-on efforts to launch a satellite, in contrast to Iran, which has successfully launched three.
While the two countries, which have a long history of cooperating to develop long-range missiles, appear to be pulling pages out of the same playbook, experts say Pyongyang’s launch plans are particularly bold.
“They are deliberately pushing the envelope,” said James Moltz, a professor at the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
Moltz said the launches underscore how both countries, isolated from the international community, “are struggling to develop military capabilities that no one else wants them to get.”
For Iran, long-range missiles are seen as a key to keeping Israel at bay. North Korea wants a credible threat to counter the US. Nothing could accomplish that better than raising the fear that it will put a nuclear weapon on the tip of an intercontinental ballistic missile, though North Korea is not yet believed to be capable of making weapons small enough.
Developing missiles is a tricky game for both countries. North Korea is under heavy UN sanctions to prevent it from conducting any ballistic missile tests. Iran is under sanctions preventing other nations from selling it -missile-related technology.
Even so, conducting satellite launches helps both countries achieve military goals, though they have had different levels of success.
North Korea first tried to launch a satellite back in 1998. It tried again in 2006 and 2009, but international observers say neither succeeded.
Iran launched its first satellite aboard an Iranian-built rocket in 2009 and its second in June last year. In February, it successfully launched the Navid satellite into orbit on a missile launch-vehicle called the Safir.
However, playing the satellite card has two big pluses for North Korea and Iran.
The launches augment data for military programs and at the same time boost national pride, just as the US, Soviet and, more recently, Chinese space programs have done for their countries.