North Korea’s announcement last week that it will use a long-range rocket to place a satellite into orbit surprised some Western observers coming so soon after Pyongyang’s February 29 agreement to freeze missile testing and some nuclear activity in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid from the United States. Most Western observers believe this launch is actually a North Korean test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering a nuclear payload as far as the western United States. While this would be consistent with North Korea’s frequent failure to honor such agreements, it could also reflect internal dynamics as the Kim Jong Un government establishes itself.
North Korea announced on March 17 that it would launch a polar-orbiting earth observation satellite named the Kwangmyongsong-3 in mid April to commemorate the birth of the founder of the North Korean state Kim Il Sung, who was born on April 15, 1912. North Korea claims it attempted to launch the Kwangmyongsong-1 satellite in 1998 but the rocket crashed into the Pacific Ocean. North Korea insists that its attempt to place the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite into orbit in 2009 succeeded. LIGNET agrees with Western experts that this launch also failed.
North Korea’s missile tests have been destabilizing because they increase the capability of Pyongyang to threaten its neighbors, possibly with missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. North Korea has 600-800 ballistic missiles, mostly short and medium-range, intended to strike South Korea and Japan. It has a small number of missiles designated ICBMs such as the Taepodong-2 which may have a range of 7,000 miles and the capability of striking the West Coast of the United States. This missile has been tested three times, including for alleged satellite launches in 1998 and 2009. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified to Congress last November that North Korea is developing a road-mobile ICBM. Such a missile could be capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States and would be difficult to detect.
The official designation of the rocket to be used to launch the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite next month is the “Unha-3.” Similar to the 1998 and 2009 launches, this will be a three-stage rocket based on the Taepodong-2 design. The launch will yield important data for North Korea on this missile and its ability to lift a heavy payload such as a nuclear device.
North Korea’s missile tests also serve as advertisements to other states who are in the market to buy ballistic missiles. North Korea is the world’s leading vendor of ballistic missiles to rogue states and has earned hard currency by selling missiles to Iran, Syria, Libya, and possibly Burma. Iran and North Korea have forged an especially close relationship and Tehran’s rapidly advancing missile program is based on North Korean technology.
U.S. officials described North Korea’s missile launch announcement as “highly provocative” and a violation of UN Security Council resolutions. In October 2006, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1718, which said that North Korea must "not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile" and must "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program.” A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said the launch would be a “deal breaker” for the recent food aid agreement. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak described the planned North Korean missile test as "a grave provocation."
Japan, which was very concerned by the last two long-range North Korean missile tests in 1998 and 2009 that overflew its territory, was especially outspoken in condemning the announcement of a launch. Japanese newspapers clamed Japan is considering shooting down the missile if it enters Japanese territory. North Korea's state-run media has claimed that Kim Jong Un was prepared to start a full-scale war in 2009 if Japan tried to attack the long-range missile it launched that year to lift the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite into orbit.
While North Korean officials have rejected international condemnation of their planned missile launch, they did announce some steps that appear intended to lower tensions over the launch. Pyongyang has released a flight plan that it terms a “a safe-flight orbit” which uses a more southerly route than the previous two alleged satellite tests and will not overfly Japan. According to North Korea, the Unha-3’s flight plan is designed to ensure that “rocket debris to be generated during the flight would not have any impact on neighboring countries.’’ North Korea has also invited international observers to visit the country to observe the launch.
North Korea’s decision to defy the United States and the international community is a significant development that reflects the policies of the nascent Kim Jong Un government as it tries to establish itself, possibly as part of an effort to stave off an internal power struggle.
The missile launch announcement also is consistent with past North Korean behavior. Although it may seem counterproductive to make such a provocative announcement just after the food aid deal was reached with the United States, North Korea has done this before, apparently in the wrong-headed belief that it strengthens its ability to prevail in future diplomatic talks. In June 2003, for example, the United States and North Korea were about to hold talks, but they were suspended after North Korea deliberately attacked a South Korean naval vessel.
It is also possible that the missile launch is intended to test the West’s resolve and to see how much leeway North Korea has to continue its missile program. Since the food aid deal with the United States was quite generous and placed very limited restrictions on the North Korean nuclear program, Pyongyang may have been tempted to see how far it can it can push Washington. North Korea also may believe that that with the United States distracted by Afghanistan and Iran, it might be reluctant to confront Pyongyang over the missile launch.
While North Korea’s claims that it wants the missile launch to be a “safe-orbit flight” could indicate an interest in containing tensions, the launch bodes poorly for the new regime’s willingness to comply with international agreements or to cease its nuclear program. The government probably will assess the blowback from this incident before it attempts a more provocative missile launch or a new nuclear test.
The United States and its allies will protest the missile launch but are unlikely to hold it against North Korea as long as the missile does not result in some kind of catastrophe, such as landing on Japanese soil. After a few weeks of condemnations, LIGNET believes Washington will resume pressing for talks with North Korea as long as there are no further serious provocations. Obama officials will probably still try to continue the food aid deal on humanitarian grounds, although this action could be blocked by Congress.
Next month’s missile/satellite launch is probably a deliberate provocation related to the new Kim Kong Un regime establishing itself. The launch probably also suggests that this regime will be as difficult to deal with and untrustworthy as the last one. If North Korea does not pay a significant price for this launch — which LIGNET thinks is likely — it will be emboldened to engage in more provocative acts in the future, possibly including a nuclear test.