Ramifications of N. Korean satellite launch
Pyongyang recently formally informed the world that it intends to conduct a "satellite launch" next month, in a move that has already created angst and disruption all over the region and in international circles. As we look ahead to the upcoming launch, it is important to consider some important issues.
If the launch occurs, it is in reality a ballistic missile test ― not simply a "satellite launch." To argue anything else is silly. The technology for the platform that would carry either a dummy warhead or a satellite is exactly the same.
The only difference is what would sit on top of the launch platform ― a dummy warhead or a more bulbous object. What this launch really means ― if successful ― is that North Korea has now perfected the technology for a three-stage ballistic missile that is capable of hitting the United States (at the very least, Alaska or Hawaii). Thus, the key to watching this "satellite launch" will be to see if the missile is able to successfully go through all three of its stages.
The launch is scheduled to take place from a new site ― Tongchang-ni. This site is a significant upgrade from the site where previous long-range missile test-launches have occurred. Thus, it will be important to see if the setup time has been reduced for launching the missile. If so, this means a reduction in warning time for South Korean and U.S. policymakers and military planners.
It will also be important to take note of other advances in the new launch site as the North Koreans conduct the test. Some of these advances will likely be the time it takes to get a missile and/or a warhead from production facilities to the launch site, improvements in fueling and setting up the missile, and denial or deception of U.S. and South Korean intelligence collection assets through masking or disguising equipment or other aspects of the launch site.
It will also be key to take note of the missile itself. The platform is likely to be a variant of the Taepodong-2 that was tested in 2009. Of course, it will be important to see if the North Koreans have finally perfected the technology for a three-stage ballistic missile that is capable of targeting the United States.
But it will also be important to see if Pyongyang has made other advances in their long-range missile technology since 2009, and to understand the impact that these advances will have upon the region and international geopolitics. Perhaps the most important thing to assess if the launch is successful, is, what type of payload would this missile be able to carry if it was carrying a military warhead?
Speaking of geopolitics, the motivations for this launch are quite interesting. The test is scheduled to celebrate Kim Il-sung's birthday. Another likely real reason that this missile is being tested now is quite simply because the North Koreans think they have made the advances necessary to successfully launch a three-stage ballistic missile.
This is extremely important for Pyongyang's foreign and economic policy because they will very likely immediately proliferate ― that is to say, sell for a very high price ― this technology to the Iranians. This is likely to mean profits for Pyongyang that could run as high as hundreds of millions of badly needed dollars.
It also limits the leverage that the United States (or any other nation-state) would have by threatening to withdraw aid packages in return for inspections of their nuclear programs using highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium, and a moratorium on ballistic missile testing. Any aid package that would likely be offered would pale in comparison to the money that would be made by simply proliferating the technology to Iran.
Finally, the upcoming launch (if it in fact occurs) shows that there may still be some confusion within the "new" government in North Korea with Kim Jong-un as its leader. Reportedly, during bilateral talks just days before Kim Jong-il's death, U.S. officials, when notified of plans for a test-launch, told the North Koreans that a ballistic missile launch (no matter what the "purpose") would violate U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 and breach agreements.
And yet the North Koreans went ahead with a new deal for inspections and a moratorium on ballistic missile testing ― and then announced the "satellite test launch" soon thereafter (showing either obvious confusion in the decision-making process or a sudden decision reversal). Perhaps the North Korean succession process is not proceeding as "smoothly" as many have assumed.
This launch (if it occurs) shows that North Korea intends to advance its offensive military agenda and its ongoing policy of proliferation to rogue states. Policymakers and military planners would be wise to take this into account in future planning.
Bruce E. Bechtol Jr. is an associate professor of political science at Angelo State University, and the author of “Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security.” Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.