North Korea and the Politics of space exploration
Although the scientific community purports to be an entity unto itself, we have witnessed an increase in the intersections between scientific progress and political influence in the past century. This pattern is most recently exemplified by the failure of a North Korean rocket launch last friday. The nature of the launch is a highly contentious subject; although North Korea maintains that the aim of the launch was to put a satellite into orbit, many people suspect that it disguised a test of long range missile technology that violates UN resolutions.
More important than the launch’s technological failure is the political ramifications that it has incited. The White House and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have condemned the launch, and the UN security council is due to meet and discuss what measures should be taken with regards to North Korea. I find it personally fascinating that the missile’s scientific significance is so under-explored, particularly when compared to the political turmoil that it has caused among other nations.
One aspect of the launch which I think has been neglected by the press are the possible reasons for its origination. One could argue that the competitive nature of technological development between nations originated with the space race; beginning in 1957 with the USSR’s launch of Sptunik 1. From that point on the US worked furiously to surpass their Russian counterparts. As more and more resources become available to more and more countries, this “race” continues to expand; simultaneously increasing the exposure to and volatility of the scientific subject at hand.
The principal question in this uneasy climate is that of responsibility. Who should have access to the technology that can create missiles? Who is to delegate this? What power does a treaty or set of agreements really have over it’s assenting members? Clearly not much, and it remains to be seen what sort of restrictions will be legitimately effective in this particular field. We must also consider the costs of such limitations. To what extent should political interactions dictate the advancement of space research? Can progress be discredited or even destroyed because it originated with the wrong country? Such questions are crucial to the betterment and continuation of science exploration as a whole.