Saturday, October 9, 2010

Have They Choson To Launch

In the community of nations, North Korea stands on its own in essentially any category you'd care to name. It's an isolationist, paranoid, communist family dictatorship, a cult of personality with borders, the most rogue of the rogue states. The inevitable weight of history, combined with the massively quixotic choices of its leadership, have left it with a greater population than Canada but a gross domestic product smaller than Saskatchewan's. It's a garrison state unlike anywhere else in the world, armed and bristling like an ornery porcupine. Such a wonderful world it is when a country like North Korea has nuclear weapons - but that's all in the past.

What I'm thinking about is the future. I've talked about this a couple of times, on and off, with Randy McDonald of A Bit More Detail - he came up with the concept that North Korea may end up becoming an economic colony of the South: even if the Korean Peninsula ever does reunify, the differences in development are far, far vaster than those that separated West and East Germany - and even twenty years later, the seams are still discernible in the brave neu Deutschland.

The big problem with speculating on the future of North Korea is an intrinsic part of its nature, though - due to its isolation and secretiveness, it's almost impossible to have any real idea of what North Korea will do, but there are dozens of avenues it could take.

It might be primed to turn down a new one in the near future, as leadership is primed to be passed off to a new generation - yesterday Kim Jong-un, third son of current dictator Kim Jong-il, was confirmed to be heir. While there's no way of knowing when Kim Jong-Il will vacate his current office - presumably, he won't do so until he's put in a box and wheeled away - the rise of a new leader often puts states down new paths.

So what might North Korea do in the years ahead? Maybe, possibly, plausibly, seek to become the fourth country to launch a human into space.

I have no idea what's going on in this North Korean propaganda poster, but it must be a hell of a thing. Look at all the speed lines around that rocket!

A couple of years ago I would have thought this faintly ridiculous, but a couple of years ago I hadn't heard of Copenhagen Suborbitals, the private rocket group out in Denmark that attempted a suborbital launch last month. The Tycho Brahe rocket, which is only still Earthbound because a $15 hair dryer's batteries died, cost only in the neighborhood of $50,000. This is something even a small municipality could finance; even with a starving populace, bloated military and crumbling industrial infrastructure, I don't doubt North Korea could throw the necessary amount of resources toward this sort of project.

Too, it would have a motivation: to make the rest of the world take it seriously. Recall that North Korea has had nuclear weapons since 2006, and consider that much of the motive force behind the original space race was to develop the infrastructure for an intercontinental ballistic missile force. Granted, I don't think it would be the most intelligent thing for North Korea to do; it's one thing to threaten to turn Los Angeles into a lake of fire, and it's another to start building rockets on top of that rhetoric. Neither China, Russia, nor the United States would see very much to like in a North Korea with that sort of equipment.

Beyond that, I doubt it would end particularly well for North Korea's first astronaut. Even the Tycho Brahe isn't going to be as safe as American or Russian craft - for a North Korean suborbital craft, safety would not likely be high on the list, because that costs precious money and resources. There are probably millions of potential astronauts who would jump at the opportunity to become a hero of North Korea and never come home again - so might go the thinking in Pyongyang, at least.

Nevertheless, I can see it happening before 2019 - much later, though, and North Korea may run into serious structural problems that impair its basic functions. The next space "race" may well be between Denmark and North Korea, and that alone is enough indication for me that we're living in the future.

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