North Korea is not shy about announcing its ambitions for military and space technology, and the two often seem intertwined. The reclusive authoritarian nation recently told the Associated Press that it has started a program to land a probe on the moon within ten years. It would be only the fourth nation to do so after the US, Russia, and China. North Korea has a history of stretching the truth, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it could reach the moon in the not too distant future.
The North Korean space agency has already launched several small satellites into orbit of Earth — this much has been confirmed. However, North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as it likes to be called) claims ongoing communication with the KMS-4 satellite, but no outside experts are able to confirm any activity from the object.
The US made its first flyby of the moon in 1959, just six months after launching its first satellite. However, it took eight more years to successfully orbit the moon. It’s fairly easy to shoot something near the moon, but you have to burn fuel to reduce that speed to reach a stable orbit. DPRK space science director Hyon Kwang Il says the country is currently planning more sophisticated Earth-orbital missions, including a geostationary satellite. Experts point out this would be a major step forward as you need more powerful and advanced engines to place a satellite in geostationary orbit than you’d need to reach lunar orbit.
There’s no evidence thus far that North Korea’s space technology has reached the level to allow either of those missions to succeed. Experts contacted by the AP estimate at least 10-20 years before North Korea has the ability to orbit the moon. From there, you need to drop a small lander that can slow its descent, which comes with its own challenges. Whatever North Korea does with its space program, it will probably face additional sanctions from the international community.