Saturday, June 18, 2022

Kwangmyongsong-30: North Koreans Fight Americans in Outer Space

"The Signal that Flew from Kwangmyongsong-30" (《광명성-30》호에서 날아온 전파) is a science fiction story by Shin Sŭng Gu (신승구) that appeared in Chosŏn Munhak in August 2016.

I stumbled across this story as I was searching for references to radiation [방사능,방사선,방사성] in North Korean literature for a forthcoming paper; more on that soon maybe.

This story has everything you typically ask for in a space drama: explosions, flying debris, solar flares, high-stakes meticulous telemetry calculations, a race against the clock, unscrupulous asteroid miners, dizzying space walks, an improbably young and beautiful astrophysicist, a brilliant mission control team scrambling ad-hoc solutions to life-or-death problems... and, of course, antimatter.

But I get ahead of myself. First, let us examine:

The Plot

Satellite Research Institute Director Jang Hyŏk is busily managing the final stages of his institute's biggest project to date - a massive solar array in outer Earth orbit that will collect energy from the sun's rays and beam it back to the surface via laser. This achievement is made possible by the satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-30, the culmination of decades of satellites launched by the North Korean space program.

They switch on the big screen, where an astronaut is floating in space, putting the final touches on the array. It’s Director Jang Hyŏk’s son, Yŏng Jun, freshly graduated from Astrophysics University and up on his first space mission.

As his son floats dizzyingly above the earth, he reports on the final repairs, and the two speculate that the enemy will "go apoplectic" [까무라치고말것입니다] when they hear of the array's completion tomorrow. Grinning, they terminate the connection.

Director JH is counting on Yŏng Jun for more than just the space array; he hopes his unmarried son will soon find a nice young daughter-in-law to come live with them [JH's anticipation of this is full-on creepy].

Just as he is thinking these thoughts, a gorgeous vision of womanhood enters his office. She seems familiar, and he immediately guesses she must be a reporter, or perhaps an actress; she shakes her head.

“I’ve come for a job.”
“A job? This is a space satellite research center.”
“I’m aware.”
“That is, one must have manly qualities to work here. Bold, gutsy…”
“That’s why I’ve come.”
She dug into her bag and presented her assignment papers; his eyes widened. “Graduated with top marks from the doctoral program of Astrophysics University? That’s fantastic, for one so young!”

After she leaves, an unnamed senior technician [기사장] speaks up: He was Comrade Ran Hee's graduate advisor, and knew her to be a passionate researcher, always in the library. Twice she’d won gold medals in international exibitions. JH sees how her expertise could complement their work; but still he worries that this "delicate greenhouse flower of a girl" [온실의 꽃과 같이 연약한 처녀] may not be tough enough for this stressful job. 

Director JH continues coordinating power grid issues late into the night. Just after 4 am, they receive a disturbing report from their space observation lab: A chunk of unknown material has flown off Asteroid 233, a 500-m diameter object between Mars and Jupiter. Measuring 50 m diameter, the chunk appears to be headed for Earth. 

North Korean satellite launch control 
center (Src: BBC)
JH is initially unconcerned; at that size it should burn up in the atmosphere – unless it is made up of solid nickel or iron, but those are rare. But the spacelab manager is suspicious; the trajectory is odd, as if the asteroid was aimed straight at their solar array. JH bangs away at his computer a bit and brings up the space view on the big screen. There: that bright red speck is the chunk from Asteroid 233. 

The sub-asteroid is unmistakably headed straight at Kwangmyongsong-30. Spacelab Manager recalls that yesterday’s imagery from the high-powered telescope on the space station had shown what looked like an explosion on A233, where the enemy had planted its flag. Our people on the space station had inquired and been told that they were extracting minerals. Now it seems likely that they had blown off a chunk to fire at Kwangmyongsong-30.

"What sneaky bastards. To calculate precisely all the variables – the asteroid’s position, the earth’s revolution and rotation, the speed of the projectile – they must have used a supercomputer [고성능초대형콤퓨터] to aim so precisely at Kwangmyongsong-30 and get the timing just right. If we do nothing, in hours it will blast our solar power station to smithereens."

Spacelab Manager spots another cause for concern; if it is composed of nickel and doesn’t burn up in the atmosphere, the asteroid is on course to strike North Korean territory. The estimated impact would be apocalyptic for the country. “The bastards are trying to kill two birds with one stone [일거량득],” Director JH observes.

Spacelab Manager suddenly brightens, remembering that they positioned defensive attack rockets around the array for just such a scenario. But JH says no; even if they blow it up, the fragments will continue on the same path. Even a small fragment could shatter the array they’ve worked so hard to build.

“But sir, what about Comrade Yŏng Jun?” Spacelab Manager seems about to cry.

People gather around, filled with determination to save the director’s son; but Jang stubbornly ignores their suggestions. Via satellite link, Yong Jun too rejects the team's offers to send a shuttle  [우주왕복선] to save him: “Thanks for your concern. But my fate lies with Kwangmyongsong-30. Do not fear.” 

Some time later, the unnamed tech who was Ran Hee's graduate advisor shows up, looking sweaty and out of breath. JH scolds him for being truant in their darkest hour, but Unnamed Tech just grins and says he was finishing up a project at the university with Ran Hee. He says they've found a way to save Comrade YJ and the space station.

At an emergency strategy meeting, they announce their audacious plan to "turn this asteroid into a tool to strike back against the enemy.”

Ran Hee elaborates: “I propose we use solar sails [태양돛] to change the meteorite’s path and avoid a collision. [...] A solar sail is a thin, filmy sail about 50 m wide and 0.075 mm thick; it can guide an object in the desired direction by using the power of sunlight. If such a sail could be attached to the asteroid, we could then use the angle of the sail to change its path.”

The room erupts in animated chatter; Unnamed Tech raps for attention. “It’s a simple problem. The force from sunlight is subtle, but in the weightlessness of space there is no resistance. The sail could move as fast as 200 km/s, and so catch up with this asteroid that is doing about 30 km/s.”

JH looks at the pair wonderingly. Is this what they’d been up to at the university this morning? Have they already built some sort of sail assembly? Suddenly he remembers where he’s seen her before: she was his son’s teammate at the international inventor’s competition, where they won gold! The photo is in his album at home. And his son had spoken fondly of "a doctoral student at the university." Could they be more than just colleagues?

   The First Team Leader spoke up: “Researcher Ran Hee’s idea is a good one. But… how do we get the sail to the asteroid’s position? Solid rockets [고체로케트] won’t work…”
   “That’s why we’re going to use the antimatter thruster [반물질추진기],” Ran Hee quietly replied. 
   The room erupted in agitated murmuring; as rocket scientists, they all knew that antimatter reacted violently when put in contact with regular matter, producing energy 1000 times greater than nuclear fusion. But where to find it? It existed when the universe was formed 13.7 billion years ago, but now there was no trace of it anywhere. 
The antimatter canister
from Angels & Demons
   You could hear a pindrop, as everyone hung on her next words: "That's right. The vehicle to transport the solar sail should be an antimatter craft, not a solid fuel rocket. It is a known fact that antimatter forms in clouds during thunderstorms. The problem is that the substance disappears almost immediately. But working with Comrade Yong Jun, I’ve developed a device to recover that antimatter. In fact, we have built an antimatter powered craft. I will fly this craft into space.”
   More disbelieving murmurs. “That delicate girl, flying up into space?” “But there are no female astronauts…” “But you’re supposed to have three months’ training before you can go up.”

    Jang Hyok’s voice cut through the noise. “No way. Absolutely not!”

   “Why – because I’m a woman? But if this is going to work, I have to be at Yong Jun’s side.”
   “Why is that?”

Unable to answer, she blushes and looks down. Coming to her rescue, Unnamed Tech explains that YJ and RH have always worked best together; "like a pair of meshed gears... they need to engage together to work." Reluctantly, Director JH approves the plan.

At sunrise, the antimatter craft launches with RH aboard. Moving at tremendous speed, it breaches the atmosphere in the blink of an eye and then begins a complicated rotation maneuver meant to unfurl the sail. Watching from mission control, JH tenses, knowing that solar sail deployment requires a meticulous calculation of the subtle correlation between the sail area and the vehicle’s rotational speed. 

After several rotations, it becomes clear that the sail is not unfurling properly. RH struggles at the controls, growing more frantic. Then a masculine voice cuts through her panic: “Ran Hee, listen to me. You have to adjust your rotation period to 3 seconds. Remember that this sail has a much larger area!” It's YJ, transmitting from Kwangmyongsong-30.
Everyone holds their breath. 3 seconds is a terribly fast rotation speed; can this mere slip of a girl withstand the centrifugal forces?

She does. The ship spins like a top, the sail unfurls magnificently, and she shoots off toward K30. There, YJ comes aboard and joins her at the controls, and they take off again, headed straight for the sub-asteroid. Closer and closer it comes, but they don't slow down. Finally, at the last possible moment, the craft executes a neat 180 degree turn and bites into the asteroid’s rear.

Clad in spacesuits, YJ and RH step out onto the asteroid. Despite the ferocious speed at which the rock is traveling, they can stand on it without any difficulty, because there is no atmosphere in the vacuum of space. 

Now they just need to install the solar sail. But instead, the pair seem preoccupied with setting up some instruments on the rocky surface. What the hell are they playing around with? 

   Jang Hyŏk screamed in frustration. “Get that sail set up. The asteroid’s nearing the power station.” 
   “Shouldn’t we check its composition though?”
   What? Check the asteroid's composition? When we're almost out of time... looking for evidence of the enemy’s scheme... The balls on these kids! [아, 얼마나 담이 큰 젊은이들인가?]
  Soon after, Yong Jun stood up. “This asteroid is a chunk of iron and nickel broken off from A233. It appears that the enemy laid explosive charges to blast it off. They wanted to obliterate Kwangmyongsong-30 and our space power station. And then, our country…”
   Jang Hyok shook with fury. “You old cowards, are you scared of our strong socialist nation? Surely not.”
   On the wall, the clock ticked mercilessly on toward disaster. Only 5 minutes from impact! And still the seconds ticked by. Finally the pair stood up from their labor.
   “Now to adjust the sail’s angle. What should it be?”
   “Do you have to ask? You know what our people want.”
   “Understood. We’ll send this rock back to A233, to crush it into oblivion. How’s that?”
   Jang Hyok and the technician shouted in unison. “That’s it! Even against this enemy who blocks us at every move, we’ve got to be smart about how we settle the score. Got it?”
   “Roger that!”

With the angle set, YJ and RH return to their ship and head back to K30. The asteroid slowly turns, narrowly avoiding hitting the solar panel, and heads back toward A233. In short order, that hive of enemy scheming will be shattered.

Soon after, YJ and RH come on the speaker together to report that the space power station is now fully operational. Their signal comes from Kwangmyongsong-30! 

Ah, how many trials and sacrifices led to this moment? How hard was the road? Hello world, can you hear it? The glorious shout of the victors who stand at the very pinnacle as a scientific and technological great power [과학기술강국]!

JH gives the triumphant order to switch on the power station. Instantly, the giant power transmission towers buzz and the grid comes alive, sending power out to every corner of the country.


There's a fair amount of geeky space science in this story; Neil DeGrasse Tyson groupies should take note.  Kwangmyongsong-30's mission is described in detail:
30% of solar energy gets blocked by the atmosphere and clouds, never reaching the earth’s surface… That is the advantage of going to space. Now many countries are trying to develop space power stations, but none has achieved the transmission system [송전체계] our country has. The transmission system that we developed is not a microwave-converted electromagnetic wave, but a laser light transmission cable [레이자빛수송관], and there is no need for noisy construction on the ground for a reception site.
In this way, the story deftly takes the country's expensive Kwangmyongsong missile program and makes it seem as if at some point in the future this will lead to a bottomless source of renewable energy that will benefit the whole country. The orbiting solar power plant described in the story resembles one that China has recently announced plans to build.

The story also alludes to North Korean astronauts working alongside non-Koreans at a "Space Station" [우주정류소] housing the high-powered telescope [대형우주망원경] that initially detects the explosion on A233; it is unclear if this is referring to the International Space Station or some fictional future endeavor.
Elsewhere, the topic of solar flares and radiation comes up:

Setting up a huge solar array in space was tremendously difficult. The greatest danger was the flares; these had become highly active recently on the solar surface, and they caused unpredictable magnetic phenomena. No matter how well protected, the astronauts were always absorbing radiation. Still, someone had to go; but who to send? After much deliberation, [Director Jang Hyuk] decided to send his own son, who had just graduated from Astrophysics University. 

Later, when First Team Leader discovers that the asteroid is on course to hit North Korea, he explains the  magnitude of the threat by using a classic astronomy geek reference:

“Consider past history. In the early 20th century an asteroid 50 m in diameter struck in an eastern European forest. The fires and windstorms from the impact destroyed hundreds of sq km of forest, and all plant and animal life within 60 km was wiped out. The strong blast from impact was felt 700 km away, and airwaves were even detected by atmospheric pressure gauges thousands of km away in England. The smoke and fumes flew high in the sky, spreading dust pollution across all of Europe making the sky dark as night. The impact force from that 50 m object was equivalent to 10 megatons of TNT [뜨로찔].”

Despite the reference to "Eastern Europe," this passage is clearly referring to the Tunguska event which struck central Siberia in 1908. 

The science behind asteroid composition, solar sails, and antimatter is all described with a level of detail that could have been lifted from Scientific American or Cosmos. The gravity issues of landing and standing on a 50m asteroid are glossed over, but I prefer to think of that as an homage to the tradition of 20th century space operas. If this author is not a Trekkie, I'll eat my hat.

In Space, Everyone Is Equal

Most of the time, reading North Korean fictional depictions of technological advances can be pretty sad, especially the CNC stuff. It's clear that those stories come from the fantasies of people who are accustomed to struggling with ancient Soviet hand-me-down tech and pirated software patches that never work as they should. Everything is a little too shiny and perfect.

But here, the narrative has moved so far into the future that it has escaped the stratosphere of prosaic technological expectations. Let's face it, most space sci-fi doesn't stand up under any real scientific scrutiny. We're always thinking That would never work as planned and That would've definitely broken down by now and Gravity doesn't work that way. Most of us learn to turn off our brains so we can enjoy the story. 

On balance, this story does a pretty good job of working within the realm of the scientifically plausible. Obviously the antimatter part is pretty pseudoscience-y; but if we're going to bust them for that, we'd have to throw out half of Star Trek. The descriptions of the solar power station and the physics of unfurling the solar sail struck me as fairly believable and cleverly woven into the story.

The political rhetoric is subtle, almost invisible. The idea of the sun's power coming to their aid would definitely appeal to the lyrical sensibilities of well-read North Koreans, tying into the imagery of Kim Il Sung as "the eternal Sun" watching over his people from the cosmos. The author seems to hint at this at one point but never quite comes out and says it directly. I blinked for a moment when I read that the astronauts needed to "check the asteroid's composition" [성분을 확인해보아야 할] since "songbun checks" are so often encountered in a very different context in research about North Korea.

"The Enemy"

The title of this post implies that America is the bad guy in this story. But reading back over it, I belatedly realized that the author has done something very clever - not once does he actually mention America by name. The characters only refer to "the enemies" [적들] or "the bastards" [놈들]. The context [and the entire history of NK literature] leads the reader to assume that this refers to America, but the author has taken pains not to say so explicitly. And the ending, with the astronauts striking back at the asteroid mining operation on A233 rather than an Earthbound location, seems designed to leave "the enemy"'s homeland ambiguous. 

My reaction when I realized this

We can only speculate on why this might be. Other NK fiction has certainly never shied away from naming America as the enemy, and in the context of space conflict as we currently imagine it, who else could it be? 

But this story takes place in the fairly distant future; considering that it took NK about 20 years to get to Kwangmyongsong-4, we can project that  Kwangmyongsong-30 might roll onto the launchpad sometime around 2150. At that point, if we stretch our imaginations enough, "the enemy" could be almost anyone - China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, Botswana... even aliens! I've decided it's almost definitely aliens.

I truly enjoyed reading this story. I even slow-clapped when the antimatter thing came up. And when I realized that they were going to get control of the asteroid, I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see where they would send it. Four stars.