Inside North Korea's space centre


Damian Grammaticas reports from the launch site in North Korea

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The guards outside North Korea's satellite command centre don't smile. But then they've never had foreign journalists here before.

The previously secret site is in the countryside, half an hour outside Pyongyang. In the muddy fields nearby, troops of soldiers dig vegetable patches with hoes, and farmers work by hand, sifting the earth and planting seedlings.

Nobody would describe North Korea's mission control as imposing. It is a small, unremarkable, two-storey building, tiny compared to Nasa's Houston home in America or Russia's space command.

And there's another difference. Right in front of the building is a large cage, tall enough for a man to stand in, and several metres long. It's full of live pheasants and a deer.

It's not clear if these animals are being kept as pets, or perhaps destined to be lunch for North Korea's rocket scientists.

North Korean technicians watch live images of the rocket Unah-3 at the satellite control room of the space centre on the outskirts of Pyongyang (April 11, 2012) Journalists were told the rocket was being fuelled up

As you walk up the steps and enter you are met by a panorama painted on a wall showing a striking landscape, and North Korea's two dead autocrats - Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il - pointing, perhaps to a bright future.

But the North's secretive regime, now headed by the third of the Kim dynasty to rule here, Kim Jong-un, is opening up, for the first time.

So our group of journalists head upstairs and into the nerve centre. Sixteen technicians man the satellite command centre. Dressed in white coats, like doctors, they sit behind computer screens.


On a big screen are live pictures from the launch pad, showing North Korea's rocket being fuelled up. The satellite it will carry has already been loaded on board, we are told.

Never before has the heart of North Korea's space programme been exposed to the world like this.

"Some parties insist our peaceful space programme is a missile test," says Paek Chang-ho, head of the satellite control centre.

Start Quote

We are an adult - what I am saying [to America] is do not interfere into our business”

End Quote Paek Chang-ho Head of satellite control centre

"That's why we have invited you, to clearly show that this is a satellite launch not a ballistic missile.

"I hope you become supporters in showing the transparency of our satellite launch."

North Korea's new openness is an attempt to allay fears it is about to test missile technology that could deliver a warhead as far as America.

The United States has warned a launch would be a breach of UN Security Council resolutions that ban the North from testing missile technology. If North Korea goes ahead it could lead to UN sanctions, it has warned.

But Paek Chang-ho says in lecturing North Korea, America is behaving the way you would talk to a child.

"We are an adult," Mr Paek tells me, adding "what I am saying [to America] is do not interfere into our business".

Today the North was pressing ahead with its own business. Kim Jong-un, not yet 30 years old, was given the title of First Secretary of the Workers' Party, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who ruled this land before him.

North Korean students ride down a water slide into a swimming pool at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang (April 11, 2012) Foreign journalists were taken to view the water slides at Kim Il-sung University's swimming pool

While the Workers' Party conference was happening we were taken to see the Kim Il-sung University. I'm not quite sure why our North Korean government hosts took us there.

They took us to see the swimming pool, a giant, gleaming new complex, full of healthy, young North Koreans swimming up and down the Olympic size pool.

Others were having fun, whizzing down water slides into a plunge pool, or taking massages given by jets of water. There was even a glass lift so you didn't have to walk up some stairs to reach the high diving boards.

Intranet only

We were shown the e-library, where students sat behind computers studying - but they weren't connected to the internet, only North Korea's own limited intranet.

Seated behind one terminal was Kim Gwang-hyok, who is 31 and studying the history of North Korea's revolutionary leaders. He is two years older than his nation's new leader, but he said he trusts and believes in Kim Jong-un as he has the same qualities as his father and grandfather.

The young Kim Jong-un is now in charge of the North's rocket programme and its nuclear bombs. Despite the North's new attempts at openness, many outside North Korea find that an unsettling prospect.

Damian Grammaticas Article written by Damian Grammaticas Damian Grammaticas China correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    North Korea is often criticised for being a country still in the middle ages, so surely this rocket launch is a step forward in modernisation for North Korea? Maybe adding itself to the space age will help the progression of the country; it's certainly progressing a lot better than most African countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    12. johnbscot
    Do we have to treat North Korea in the same way as we treat Iran?

    Iran have clearly declared 'war' against other countries, have North Korea?

    I am sure South Korea would feel NK was not exactly a peaceful place. They have been technically at war for decades.

    And compared to NK, theocratic Iran is a veritable bastion of freedom. They even let their citizens go on foreign holidays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    @johnbscot... Why should we trust the communist state. They should really make the first move by opening up more to the west.

    If they had been less secretive then we would not have been so troubled by them. The West has given them chances, but they don't see it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Do we have to treat North Korea in the same way as we treat Iran?

    Iran have clearly declared 'war' against other countries, have North Korea?

    I abhhor the communist state in North Korea, but it is very insular and seems to only cause problems with their own people.
    Perhaps we are afraid of what we do not know.

    Let us open dialog.. not the constant distrust!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Their "space" program rather reflects NK.

    A poor place stuck in the past and very poor.

    What a waste of money. Pity the unfortunate citizens that suffer under THE most repressive regime in the world.

    If anywhere deserves regime change...its NK.

    China should demonstrate its alleged progressive credentials and take the lead in bringing NK to civilization.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    @ 1. not_justin_bieber
    The moderators do not like you saying "first,"you have to say something like,"First satellite launch". However on topic,I am sure this is very primitive technology,a bit like a stretch scud,which in turn was a stretch V2. But still very dangerous with a nuclear warhead,particularly as the guidance system could land it anywhere.
    Will probably get moderated for pointing out the moderation rules.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Look at the set-up, what the heck are they going to do with it? They have about as much petrol money as a Chav giving up his pint and spliff. The mission Control looks like something off the Muppets and the technology of the water slide mind blowing. Think I shall sleep sound in my bed tonight.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I found a number of things the North Koreans have done, highlighted in this article.
    1. USA - Minid your own business
    2. That they have restricted internet access (let's face it. 99% of what is on the internet could be deleted anyway)
    3. That they opened their doors to the press (despite knowing what poop mongers they are)
    4. ...many outside North Korea find that an unsettling prospect. (Not as unsettling as OUR leaders make ME feel. Especially ppl like GW Bush and Bliar)

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    One small step for the USA, one giant leap for North Korea... What's next are they going to put a flag on the moon next to the American Flag? :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Rockets? No, no, don't look too closely at that. Look at this waterslide instead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    @ 1. not_justin_bieber
    1st. ;-)
    Now you're a North Korean Astronaut...well done!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I'm no fan of this regime, but if they are launching a satellite, then I think we ought to let them do it. After all, nobody got their panties in this much of a twist when the Soviet Union did it, and their rockets where an even more obvious military test.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    If that thing can reach America, then it can reach us. Unsettling to say the least

  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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