[Analysis] North rolls the dice again with plans for a satellite launch

Posted on : 2009-02-25 12:13 KST Modified on : 2009-02-25 12:13 KST
Reasons for the launch could include a desire to influence negotiations with the U.S.
 North Hamgyong Province. The North’s Korean Central News Agency released this photo Feb. 24 but did not indicate when the photo was taken.
North Hamgyong Province. The North’s Korean Central News Agency released this photo Feb. 24 but did not indicate when the photo was taken.

North Korea has begun a game of “satellite.”

In an official announcement yesterday, North Korean media announced that the “launch of an experimental communications satellite is in full gear” and stated a number of specifics: that the agency responsible for the launch is the (North) Korean Committee of Space Technology, that the “experimental communications satellite Kwangmyongsong-2” is going to ride inside the Unha-2 carrier rocket, and that Tonghae Satellite Launching Ground, Hwadae County, North Hamgyong Province, is going to be the launch site.

In other words, it is talking straight into the face of warnings from South Korea and the United States that the launch is really of a ballistic missile and is therefore in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1718, instead of beating around the bush about it. It also goes a step further than the North’s Korean Central News Agency announcement of Feb. 16, which declared that space development “is our sovereign right,” part of “a demand for real development” and that “you shall see what it is we launch.”

The fact it has been confirmed that even launch preparations are being made can be expected to have a considerable effect on U.S.-North Korean relations and the political situation on the Korean Peninsula, Pyongyang and Washington having until now been probing each other for a reaction since the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama. The North will say that firing a satellite is part of the right of peaceful use of space held by all UN member states, but it could still be accused of violating UN Security Council Resolution 1718, which specifically calls on it to “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme,” and the technical difference between a satellite launch rocket and a ballistic missile amounts to as much as a single sheet of paper. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan are both saying Pyongyang would be in violation of Resolution 1718 even if it launches a “satellite” and that they might seek to have sanctions enacted. The move would also lead to the spread of criticism towards the North in the United States that could limit how the Obama administration can work with Pyongyang. In the words of a South Korean government official, if the North launches whatever it is going to launch, “it could be a factor that seriously hinders the six-party process.”

Why, then, is the North still hinting at a launch? It would seem there are three reasons.

The first would be related to domestic politics. It is trying to shore up unity within the system there and, by launching its own satellite, prove that its slogan about the “construction of a strong nation by 2012” is more than just a slogan. National Defence Commission Chairman Kim Jong-il is scheduled to be formally reconfirmed in his position in early April, after a Supreme People’s Assembly representatives’ meeting on March 8, making a launch a timely event as far as North Korean politics are concerned.

The next reason would be what the North thinks it could do for negotiations with the United States. Launching a “satellite” would be a demonstration of its technical know-how in ballistic missiles and therefore a way to pressure the Obama administration into moving quickly to negotiate with it and would widen the scope of the negotiations to include nuclear and missile issues, too. You can see how the North sent its “message” right after Clinton finished her Asia trip and immediately before the U.S.-Japan summit in Washington on Feb. 14. There are no international regulatory regimes like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty for missiles, and since the North is not part of the Missile Technology Control Regime, if the missile issue gets resolved the North will probably have to be given something economically in return.

The third motive would be to improve the level of its military technology in the area of ballistic missiles. “It looks like the decision to either launch or hold off will be determined by North Korea’s technological capabilities and America’s preventive response,” said a researcher at a state-funded research institute. Kim Yeon-cheol of the Hankyoreh Peace Institute said the United States needs a “preventive initiative if it wants to prevent the launch.”

Please direct questions or comments to [englishhani@hani.co.kr]

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