North Korea's space oddity: Missile or satellite?

Western journalists, including those from CNN, were taken to the rocket's control center near Pyongyang.

Story highlights

  • World's media taken to mission control near Pyongyang ahead of rocket launch
  • North Korea insists the rocket will launch a satellite into space
  • Others, such as the U.S., fear this is part of Pyongyang's missile development program

It really doesn't look like much, this mission control.

About a dozen tables with monitors, men in the standard issue white lab coats. But this is North Korea's nerve center. From here scientists will be able to monitor their rocket when they try to fire a satellite into orbit.

Our government minders have brought us here to the outskirts of the capital Pyongyang. It is all about access, this secretive regime opening its doors to the world's media -- CNN included -- to answer one question: is this a missile or a satellite?

The head of the control center is huddled into a corner of the room, a crush of cameras around him. I manage to squeeze through to the front, literally straddling the sitting reporter in front of me.

Rocket fueling under way

"After all your denials that this is not a missile test, I ask, why does the United States not believe you?"

My question brings a wry smile to his lips.

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"The United States people are very confused," he says.

"The U.S. says basically you're lying, why should they trust you"? I ask.

"This is why we have invited you here," he replies before adding that he hopes the media can become supporters of the North Korean cause.

Independent analysts though are still not totally convinced. They point to the technology itself. The rocket could easily be used for a missile as well as a satellite.

"Potentially yes, it can carry a warhead," says Russian space policy expert Yuri Karash. "The nuclear warhead can be the same size as a suitcase (so) it is possible to deliver it, but in this case I believe it is a satellite," .

Han Park is a North Korean specialist from the University of Georgia in the United States, and he's also been invited as an observer by Pyongyang.

He says this is all about trust. He trusts them but he does have questions.

"Is it a satellite or a missile? Ultimately it isn't about science, but the motives of North Korea," he says.

There's a lot riding on this rocket launch. It has essentially scuttled a much needed food aid deal with the United States and is raising tensions in an already volatile Korean Peninsula.

But in the last few days it has become clear that this is not just about technology, this is a spiritual quest, this is about honoring the memory of the founding father of the nation, Kim Il Sung.

This week North Koreans mark 100 years since his birth.

When the rocket reaches for the skies, the people here will praise a man they see as a god.