North Korean space scientist to U.S. people: 'Trust us'

Story highlights

  • Many governments think North Korea's space program is military in nature -- a claim it denies
  • CNN speaks with two scientists from DPRK's National Aerospace Development Administration
  • They say they were suspicious of Western media when it came to telling the truth

Pyongyang (CNN)In December 2012, North Korea's fledgling space program at last had something to celebrate.

After an embarrassing failure earlier that year -- a previous rocket had blown up just after takeoff in April -- they claimed to have placed Kwangmyongsong 3-2, an earth observation satellite, in orbit.
    The secretive state had claimed two previous satellite successes in 1998 and 2009, though no one outside of the country was ever able to detect them. This time, however, international experts generally agreed that KMS 3-2 was in space, but most were skeptical that it was operational.
    While North Korea claims its space program is completely peaceful, many international governments think its real nature is military -- the same rocket technology to put a satellite in orbit can be used to deliver nuclear warheads to any part of the planet. The launch triggered further U.N. sanctions against the DPRK.
    In a hotel meeting room, we were about to meet two scientists from DPRK's National Aerospace Development Administration -- the space agency has an acronym NADA, and a logo remarkably similar to that of NASA -- the space agency of its archenemy, the USA.

    Icy atmosphere

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    The two men walked into the room, stony faced and looked around the room at our set-up. We had placed their seats at the end of the conference table for a more convenient camera angle, rather than dead center under the portraits of the former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. They were clearly unhappy with this arrangement.
    The atmosphere was icy. Hyon Gwang Il, director of scientific research and development at North Korea's space agency, did not mince his words as he told us what he thought of Western media. He did not trust us, he said.
    Our agenda was to ask whether the peaceful space program had military ends; after much persuading he had reluctantly agreed to talk with us, he said. He already appeared to be regretting that decision.
    "We are trying to develop a peaceful space program but the Western media say it is a program in disguise but it is actually aimed at improving ballistic missile technology in order to develop long-range missiles."
    When pressed on the issue that such launches inevitably benefit the missile program, he laughed in exasperation -- the only time in the interview that his face showed any emotion.
    "I do not understand," he told us. "You are talking of two different things. We do understand that the same technology applies to two different areas: a military one, long-range ballistic missiles, or simply a rocket to carry a satellite into orbit.
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    "The two things share a similar technology but they are not 100% the same. There are different technologies for inflight orbit, different delivery systems."

    'Military does not need us'

    According to Hyon, the military did not need the help of the space program.
    "Our military is already fully equipped with delivery systems with warheads on rockets to target military objectives anywhere in the world. On that point, I assure you that we are fully equipped and have perfected that technology."
    But if that was true, would an impoverished country like North Korea spend billions on a space program when according to the U.N. World Food Program, 18 million North Koreans -- around 70% of the population -- is "food insecure," or highly vulnerable to food shortages? How could they possibly afford it?
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    Yun Chang Hyok, deputy director of a NADA research institute, told us they could not afford not to. Space was essential to improve the national economy and living standards.
    "We live in a knowledge-based era, we are trying to develop a knowledge-based economy. We need good data from satellites. To improve living standards, agriculture is the most important thing. We need satellite information for weather information, estimates of grain yields, telecommunications."
    The December 2012 launch had been a success they told us. It was operating normally, though they admitted there were occasional problems communicating with it and transmitting data.

    International cooperation

    North Korea has announced that it will put up more satellites. Many expect their next launch to take place in autumn this year, around the time of huge nationwide celebrations for the 70th anniversary of the one party state's ruling Korean Workers' Party. Hyon would not comment on a specific time, but said they were ready to launch at any time they received the order from Marshall Kim Jong Un. He said they had several satellites ready to go and that the launch would be announced ahead of time.
    Although they said North Korea was proud to develop its space program on its own, they said they were open to cooperation with other countries. They were open to international cooperation and exchanges with any major country or space power, and could also help other friendly countries, for example by launching their satellites for them.
    When pressed on which countries they were specifically cooperating with, he paused.
    "I wish you hadn't asked me that question," said Hyon. "If I name any particular country we are cooperating with, the next morning there would be international headlines and the U.S. would try to bring that country before the United Nations and impose sanctions."

    Sanctions biting

    Sanctions were hitting the program hard.
    "All my life, when I hear any mention of the U.S. it always involves sanctions. Sanctions exist, the impact exists. We feel it."
    However, that space program has huge ambitions. Yun Chang Hyok spoke of a future involving more sophisticated satellites, and maybe further down the line, manned space travel, space stations -- even the possibility of going to the moon.
    As the interview ended, Yun made a direct appeal to the U.S. public to "trust us." He added: "We will succeed in this. Success will come from our own efforts, without the help of others. The West is too suspicious about our program. If you won't trust us, at least drop the sanctions. Don't stop us from moving forward."