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North Koreans desperate for Western approval of launch

The country's satellite is poised to launch to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, but there are some doubts over whether it will ever go into orbit. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

PYONGYANG, North Korea – With just one day before North Korea’s expected controversial satellite launch to commemorate the 100th birthday of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, the government invited journalists to view its Mission Control – the nerve center where the rocket and satellite will be monitored and guided from.

Coming after a press conference the day before, this was likely our last preview of preparations before launch. It was important because it gave us a critical view of the real operators of the satellite. 

Following the visit, NBC News sat down with 22-year NASA Mission Control veteran and NBC space consultant James Oberg to discuss what he learned from this visit and his expectations for the launch.

First off, what were your impressions of the Control Center? Was it as you expected it to be?
It looked like a real control center – from the outside as well as the inside. First the communications links – two communications domes and a pretty hefty antenna farm on top of the hill – looked real, and inside the displays appeared logical and made sense to me.

Digitalglobe / via AFP - Getty Images

This DigitalGlobe satellite image obtained April 11, 2012, shows an image of the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea. This image was taken April 9, 2012.

One difference: There was a big sign outside the building here that I found out didn’t actually say Mission Control Center; instead, it said, “Everyone follow the leadership of the Great General.”

The director of the center made a short speech and then specifically called for you to come to the front of the press scrum to witness everything. What was that like for you?
It was certainly flattering, but clearly also an attempt at manipulation because he asked me to endorse his claim that the satellite launch was peaceful. Still, I recognized it as a gesture of respect for the American space program, for which I am the only representative to have ever visited the North Korean space program, though completely unauthorized officially by NASA.

For a while there, it seemed like there were as many North Korean cameras focused on you as foreign ones. Did you expect all that attention today?
No, I didn’t. But when you think about it and realize how desperate the North Koreans are for the appearance of Western approval, they’re bound to look for it wherever they can get it. Just the presence of this press corps, not just me, is interpreted as a sign of foreign respect for the program.

Some might view your presence at the launch center as a convenient propaganda prop for their claims. How do you respond to that?
They certainly felt it was. But I was able to use the visibility to raise some questions they had not yet answered to my satisfaction. I stressed that the boasted transparency of the North Koreans was nowhere near complete and that we didn’t have reliable insight into what was under the nose cone of that rocket.

The director joked about letting one journalist ride on the rocket. I told him that photographs of the installation of the satellite would be enough to dispel lingering suspicions, including in my own mind. He promised to provide them, but I’m not holding my breath.

One of your primary questions over the last couple of days has been how soon after launch would we start to receive radio signals from the satellite to confirm its success. Do you feel you got an adequate answer on that?
Absolutely. The director gave an answer that was totally consistent with my own calculations that it might be up to 12 hours before they get a good solid communications link with the satellite.

In the meantime, he enthusiastically agreed that amateur radio listeners around the world should try to pick up the signal, which he assured us would be broadcast continuously. Of course, it’s to their advantage that a foreign expert confirm the first proof of the satellite’s successful launch since controversy remains over the success of their [previous] satellite launch, which they still insist was successful against all other evidence.

At one point you asked where the equivalent of your old console would be in the control room and he pointed to the orbital information station in the room, a station you manned for many years. That was pretty impressive.
Yeah, I got a kick out of that. But it’s too bad I couldn’t talk to the actual operator. Because there are still interesting – to me, at least – questions about some third-stage rocket steering maneuvers they seem to need during launch to get into their target orbit. We could have had a real geek-level conversation that would have blown the interpreter’s mind.

NBC’s Richard Engel, as well as other Western journalists, continued to ask North Korean officials about the military application of these rockets, but the answers were at times exasperated and sometimes sarcastic. What do you make of it?
We’re really engaged in dual disconnected monologues here, not a real conversation. The North Koreans don’t seem to understand foreign objections and act as if their pure ideological correctness deserves worldwide obedience. They’ve dug themselves deep into the true-believer’s self-delusion that disagreement is caused by stupidity and malice, a bad habit that isn’t restricted to this corner of the world. In the West we have a hard time understanding how genuinely crazy so many North Korean projects – such as this satellite – really may be. 

But isn’t political single-mindedness a plus for advancing a difficult effort such as space exploration?
It might seem so at first, but I’m beginning to worry that the opposite is more likely to turn out to be true.  An effective safety culture in space, or any other high-tech field, demands disobedience and independent thinking from people who detect real problems that require real solutions.

But the official North Korean reaction to difficulties looks like resorting to appeals for divine inspiration from their infallible leadership so they can bully reality to “fit” their intentions. I can’t detect any indications of the necessary kind of critical problem-solving and that’s a bad sign.

Space programs infected by such a pathological culture, whether Soviet-era or NASA pre-Challenger [and pre-Columbia] era, or today’s North Korea, are doomed to encounter major setbacks.  As the bumper sticker warns, when it comes to human fallibility, “Man forgives, God forgives, Nature – never.”

This visit was likely the last satellite-related site we’ll visit before the launch itself. Any final thoughts before we begin the wait for launch time?
Opening these facilities to outside observers still strikes me as a bold and risky tactic, which I welcome. We may be able to utilize it for the good.

As the old song wisely observes, the North Koreans may not get what they WANT from this gambit – foreign approval. But they may get what they NEED – better foreign insight into their motives and decision-making. And that could make it all worthwhile.

Also for radio enthusiasts around the world, this could be your day to shine. The first people who will get a crack at catching the North Korean hymns the satellite will play to honor Kim Il-sung will be those in Western Australia 20 minutes after launch. About an hour after launch, the Eastern seaboard of the United States will be able to listen in.

Radio enthusiasts hoping to listen to catch the sounds from the satellite can tune into 479MHz. North Korean officials say they will play music continuously on that frequency.