Third nuclear test
Early Friday morning on April 13, North Korea carried out its announced rocket launch in defiance of repeated warnings from the international community, while South Koreans were still studying the outcome of the National Assembly elections ― which handed a surprising majority of 152 seats to the Saenuri Party and an unexpected defeat with 127 seats to the Democratic United Party,
The rocket was fired at 7:39 a.m. from North Korea’s new launch pad at Tongchangri, and it flew for only one to two minutes after liftoff for about 150 kilometers before it exploded into pieces that fell into the international waters of the West Sea. Although the North claimed the rocket was carrying a scientific observation satellite, it was regarded by Seoul and Washington as a long-range missile test.
Within an hour following liftoff, authorities of South Korea, Japan and the United States, which had been closely tracing the rocket’s flight, started reporting that the launch had failed. Surprisingly, the North Korean central television soon admitted the rocket’s failure, announcing, “The satellite Kwangmyongsong 3 has failed to reach its space orbit; the cause of the failure is being investigated by experts and scientists.”
It is the first such acknowledgement of a failed rocket launch. The North Koreans claimed that its two previous attempts in 1998 and 2009 had succeeded. Japan and the United States were concerned about the North’s advancing ballistic missile technology that they had displayed through these launches. The 2009 rocket flew over 3,500 kilometers with the technology potential of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
It is not unusual for a satellite launch to fail: South Korea has failed twice, Japan four times, and even the United States experienced a tragic failure in launching the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, which exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members. The point of concern is whether North Korea has developed a long-range missile system, which could deliver a nuclear warhead.
It was the consensus among North Korea specialists that the rocket launch had a multiple purpose: to celebrate the beginning of the North becoming “a strong and prosperous nation” on the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth, and to rally the people’s support behind young leader Kim Jong-un, seemingly completing his power consolidation. Externally, it was to strengthen their security from perceived threats from the United States and South Korea, increase negotiating leverage toward the United States, and possibly to improve the marketability of their missiles and technology.
Pyongyang’s immediate acknowledgement of the launch failure deserves some attention.
The North Koreans appeared very confident of a successful launch, when they invited foreign reporters to Pyongyang to observe. With foreign observers, the North must have thought they could support their claim that the launch was a genuine satellite project.
They also wanted wider foreign press coverage of the festivities celebrating the anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s birth and a special session of the Supreme People’s Assembly that completed the coronation of Kim Jong-un as North Korea’s leader with new titles; including first party secretary, chairman of the Party Central Committee of Military Affairs, and first chairman of the National Defense Commission (NDC), leaving the title of NDC chairman reserved permanently for his father Kim Jong-il.
Pyongyang’s admission may be attributable to the impossibility of hiding the truth from so many invited foreign reporters who observed the launch and had access to the press reports outside the North. Whether the admission reveals some open and frank feature of Kim Jong-un’s leadership style is an interesting question to investigate.
What we know for sure is that the North Korean leadership must have been greatly embarrassed by the failure. From hindsight, they could have negotiated a cancellation of the launch with the United States in such a way that it would have saved face and gained practical benefits including the revival of nutritional assistance.
Now that the launch was carried out, we are concerned what they might do next. Some pundits think the North might commit a violent military provocation against the South in order to make up for the failure and to prove the new leader’s toughness. However, more observers are concerned about a third North Korean nuclear test. The North conducted its second nuclear test after their missile launch and subsequent international condemnation in 2009.
The North alluded that they would do the same, if their launch is referred to the United Nations Security Council for further condemnation or additional sanction. Despite its failure, the launch was a clear violation of UNSC Resolution 1874 that barred any rocket launch using ballistic missile technology.
The members of the Security Council immediately have begun discussing the violation, albeit there is little room for further sanctions. If the council adopts another resolution or presidential statement to condemn the North, it will be more likely from experience that it would be followed by a third nuclear test.
It would be difficult to go back to business as usual as if there had been no launch. Nevertheless, the best way to prevent a third nuclear test might be resuscitation of the Feb. 29 agreement with the United States, in which the North committed to a moratorium of their nuclear activities including nuclear and missile tests as long as talks are underway.
Another nuclear test by the North would certainly create more political and security problems in this year of presidential elections in the United States and South Korea. It would also delay the resumption of the six-party talks, which are still the best possible forum for denuclearizing North Korea. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Reach him at email@example.com.