N. Korea’s Missile Launch
By Tong Kim
As North Korea is accelerating the preparation for another missile or satellite test-launch, there seems to be little the United States can do to stop it.
However, Pyongyang's final decision to conduct such a launch will depend on a number of unknown variables, including its confidence in the rocket's successful performance ― given the failure of a similar launch in 2006 ― and how it would play out for its strategy in dealing with the Obama administration. Once North Korea completes the preparation, including the fueling of a multistage rocket, there will be only a narrow window of time in which to decide whether or when to fire it.
Even if the object for the planned launch turns out to be a genuine satellite, as claimed by the North (KCNA Feb 24) and suggested by a Yonhap report (Feb. 28), the controversy over a rocket lunch would not subside soon, given rockets' nature of duel use for peaceful and military purposes and given the prevailing suspicion of North Korea's intentions for developing missiles and nuclear weapons.
The State Department declared any launch of a missile or satellite will be in violation of the 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution banning North Korea from missile or related activities.
If the planned launch is primarily to get attention ― a motivation that is often characterized as attention getting whenever North Korea undertakes a new adventure, it has already accomplished that objective. Reports of reactions to the anticipated missile launch have inundated the media. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned against Pyongyang's launch: It would violate U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, according to which North Korea is required to suspend missile activities. (Seoul, Feb. 20). She also said it would be ``very unhelpful in moving our relationship (with the DPRK) forward."
The dispatch of Washington's new North Korea policy coordinator, Stephen Bosworth, to the capitals of four participants in the six-party talks ― Beijing, Moscow, Seoul and Tokyo (announced Feb. 26) ― is partly to discuss the concerns of Pyongyang's possible missile firing, as it would create a new impediment to ways of bringing the North to the negotiating table. It is conceivable that the United States might seek China's help to restrain the North from testing an intercontinental ballistic missile. But in 2006, the Chinese failed to persuade the North Koreans against firing a Taepodong II missile.
In response to the warnings from Washington, Pyongyang claimed that it was preparing to launch a communications satellite. In a statement issued by the Korea Space Technology Commission (Feb. 24), North Korea argued that it has the right to develop its own space program, a claim that was subsequently supported by the Rodong Shinmun, a North Korean newspaper and the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea. The number two man at the DPRK mission to the United Nations said, ``The launch of a satellite will take place as planned: now it is a matter of time." (Feb 26). Pyongyang's admission that it will fire a satellite rocket is tantamount to a public notice.
In 1998, the North launched its first long range missile, known as Taepodong I ― which it also said was a satellite, without issuing a notice, in disregard of rules observed by the international community. Two years later, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il still insisted it was a legitimate satellite but admitted that the launch had undeniable military implications (October 2000) and told then-Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would be willing to suspend further rocket development if a third country would put a North Korean satellite into orbit free of charge. If not, he said, the DPRK could consider shifting the angle of a rocket launch to avoid the Pacific Ocean so that it would not create concerns for the United States.
No concrete deal was ever made regarding North Korea's missile program, other than a temporary moratorium on testing that Pyongyang announced unilaterally during the Clinton administration. It was to last as long as the United States was engaged in dialogue with the DPRK. Pyongyang revoked the moratorium during the height of its confrontational relationship with the Bush administration.
The purpose of a new rocket test by the North this time could range from the domestic and security to diplomatic calculations. In addition, South Korea is also pursuing a space program and it is expected to launch a second satellite some time in May. Pyongyang's sense of competition with the South is another possible motivation. Even during the days of inter-Korean cooperation, the North was still suspicious of the South's intent and sensitive to the increasing strategic assets of the South ― economic and scientific advantages that could be used against the security of North Korea.
On another side of the issue, the timeline for a missile test has been actively speculated in an interesting guessing game. The director of National Intelligence Service predicted in a recent report that the North is likely to consummate its test firing either during the combined U.S.-ROK Key Resolve exercise slated for the middle of March or during the convening of a new term of the Supreme People's Assembly in early April (late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung's birthday also falls in April). South Korean government sources were expecting the timing to expand from the end of March to early April on the basis of progress being watched for launch preparation on the ground.
Joining the discussion of what to do about a probable missile launch, the commander of the U.S. Pacific forces told ABC TV his command would be ready upon orders from the President to intercept a North Korean missile, employing one of the several anti-missile systems available (Feb. 26). A reliable national missile defense system has not been perfected despite the three tests that produced mixed results. Successful interception of a North Korean rocket could create an unpredictable reaction from the North. If an interception attempt fails, it would damage the credibility of the U.S. missile defense system, an important component of U.S. foreign policy to counter missile threats.
As of this writing (Mar 1), North Korea appears determined to proceed with its plan to fire a rocket or missile. If the launch turns out successfully, the North would not end up losing much. The North Koreans are likely to think that a rocket launch would create some repercussions, resulting in a delay in the resumption of the six-party Talks. But they are less likely to think it would destroy the opportunity to directly engage the Obama administration. They are more likely to think that their nuclear and missile capabilities are too important to be ignored by the United States.
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at email@example.com.