North Korea has declared that its Kwangmyongsong 2 experimental communications
satellite is ready to soar from the Musudan-ri launch facility in Hwadae. North
Korea has designated the launch vehicle as the Unha 2 which many experts in the
West brand as simply a redesigned Taepodong-2 missile.
What is clear is that even before it flies 100 kilometers down range, North
Korea will in effect be violating a pair of United Nations Security Council
Resolutions - 1695 and 1718 - which forbid North Korea from engaging in any
work on ballistic missiles.
This week, Japan's Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone and South Korea's
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Yu Myung-hwan have agreed that a launch
would indeed violate UN Security
Council Resolutions. Both were enacted in July 2006, immediately after a failed
Taepodong-2 ballistic missile test, and a subsequent nuclear test.
According to Eric Hagt, director of the China Program at the World Security
Institute, North Korea is setting the US up for what could best be described as
a lose-lose scenario.
"Regardless, of what the US does, it will be another propaganda win for the
DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] unless this missile fizzles on the
launch pad. [A successful missile interception by the US would] justify the
DPRK's claim that the US and Japan are already treating the DPRK as the enemy,
prejudicing any fair agreement at the six-party talks which are now in limbo.
No intercept whatsoever or a failed intercept [represents] an obvious
propaganda coup for the regime," said Hagt.
With both South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and Japan's leaders clearly
taking a harder stance, the US might be tempted to do the same. However, given
North Korea's claim that this is a "satellite launch", an interception by the
US is unlikely. But this peaceful "satellite launch" could still produce a
"It will be a different story if debris falls on neighboring countries,
particularly Japan, which will raise alarm for a country already highly
paranoid of its nuclear-capable neighbor," said Hagt. "The satellite launch
will ratchet up tension with the US with Japan behind it, the only country that
would conceivably attack the DPRK in whatever manner, be it via a pre-emptive
strike or other."
Looking at the full range of possible outcomes here can be rather unsettling.
Asia is not thought of as a very volatile region, but the possibility that a
widespread and devastating regional conflict could be set in motion is a
subject that keeps surfacing.
"Should the DPRK's nuclear missile program demonstrate final success, this,
along with a possible loss of Taiwan to Chinese control, will result in much
greater pressures in Tokyo to build its own nuclear weapons," said Rick Fisher,
senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in
Washington, DC. "This, of course, will lead to great instabilities as South
Korea follows suit and US law forces the [Barack] Obama administration to end
military cooperation with a newly nuclear Japan. In this game of Go, using the
DPRK to maneuver Japan into losing its American alliance would be the ultimate
victory for Beijing, which likely calculates that it can always build far more
nuclear weapons than Japan."
Katsuhisa Furukawa, a fellow at the Japan Science and Technology Agency's
Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society in Tokyo disputes the
validity of this assessment, and urges readers to accept the fact that the
region's governments are not being caught off guard here, and are ready to
react in a reasonable and balanced way to North Korea's decision.
"After the launch, you may see some news reports about comments by Japanese
politicians or a few experts about the necessity for Japan to go nuclear, or
some hysterical response from South Korea. But I just cannot find any credible
evidence [at least so far] to believe that these countries would become
seriously afraid of the DPRK launch to the extent that they would take some
unexpected measures," said Furukawa.
Yes, Japan has decided to rewrite its rulebook when it comes to space
operations to make effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) more feasible, but
Japan has not entirely discarded the national security framework which Tokyo
put in place decades ago, not yet anyway.
That said, some in China also view Japan as simply using the DPRK as an excuse
to deploy BMD systems.
"But it is hard to say whether that view represents the mainstream or the
government/party/military assessment," said Bonnie Glaser, a resident senior
associate with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies in Washington, DC.
Excuse or not, Japan's acceleration of BMD systems, strike capabilities,
changes in defense posture and structure are all also applicable to competition
with China in the long run, according to Rodger Baker, director of East Asia
Analysis at the Texas-based geopolitical intelligence company Stratfor.
"But that is still down the road, and China hopes that by serving as the
mediator between Washington and Pyongyang, it can keep both reliant on China,"
A China Brief that Glaser co-authored in late February, said,
"should North Korea proceed to conduct a test of its long-range
Taepodong-2 missile in the near term, as South Korean officials claim it is
preparing to do, China can be expected to use a variety of carrots and sticks
to mitigate the crisis and ensure that North Korea remains on the path toward
denuclearization. If Kim Jong-Il breaks his pledge to denuclearize and insists
on being a permanent nuclear state, China may conclude that North Korea is a
strategic liability and perhaps be willing to cooperate with other nations to
impose much harsher sanctions. As one influential Chinese scholar noted,
China’s message to its treaty ally in supporting limited sanctions after the
October nuclear test was clear: 'If you possess nuclear weapons, this will be
harmful to the bilateral relationship. If you become a permanent nuclear
weapons state, there will be permanent damage to the relationship'. "
Statements like this support a viewpoint that China could well be experiencing
considerable anxiety stemming from North Korea's refusal to fall into line.
"Beijing does not have the pull, and now realizes that the DPRK will never give
up its nuclear weapons through non-proliferation-focused negotiations. And now
the DPRK may have the other leg of a nuclear weapon threat, the delivery
vehicle. They are both levers to get what the regime wants," said Hagt.
"Beijing understands this and cannot do a whole lot about it since it hinges on
To some extent, North Korea is being prodded by Iran to proceed with the
launch, albeit indirectly. While it might seem far-fetched that Iran's launch
of its new Omid satellite a few weeks ago in particular might somehow exert
considerable influence over this "satellite launch" by North Korea, it would be
unwise to omit this connection altogether.
"Launching missiles and orbiting satellites is a demonstration of power. I
assume the DPRK found it expedient to do so at this time, although I don't see
the reason for the timing. Another explanation is the success of the Iranians.
They discovered that space shots are accepted with less alarm by the present US
administration than missile tests. Since space shots use a lot of missile
hardware, they give a chance to test important components of long range
missiles without aggravating the present US administration," said Uzi Rubin, an
Israeli defense consultant and founder of the Israel Missile Defense
Iran purchased a Nodong missile production plant from North Korea and used it
to produce their Shahab-3 missiles, which form the basis for the first stage of
the Safir - the rocket used to launch Iran's Omid satellite.
"However, Iran has made significant advances on their own in missile
technology. It is true that they are using Russian components, but these are
significant advances nevertheless," said Dr Geoffrey Forden, senior research
associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Program on Science,
Technology, and Society, "It will be interesting to see if these advances are
sold back to the DPRK. However, it might be hard to know that since Iran made a
special effort to publicize its technology and the DPRK is secretive as ever.
Judging from the pieces of missile technology that have been seen in the Safir,
it appears that they come from Russia as opposed to China."
Rubin concurs with almost everything Forden has said here except Forden's
statement on Russia as the source of the Safir technology.
"It could as well come from China or Ukraine," said Rubin, who points to the
recent seizure in Bahrain of tungsten bars being shipped from China to Iran as
firm evidence that China is still engaged in the proliferation of ballistic
missile technology in the Middle East and probably elsewhere. "Such bars are
needed for the control system of Iran's Sajeel ballistic missiles," said Rubin.
Both North Korea and Iran share another significant strategic objective
involving a shift in the balance of power, whether in the Middle East or East
Asia. Both nations are seeking to kick the US out of their respective regions.
"For this, destabilization is a legitimate means in their eyes," said Rubin.
Destabilization and the eviction of the US are two different things entirely.
Regardless, in the meantime, North Korea has certainly demonstrated that it can
export its space technology, and that it can act independently. Although China
may want to ease the throttle back on North Korea's space aspirations, either
on a bilateral basis or perhaps under the auspices of the Asia-Pacific Space
Cooperation (APSCO) which Beijing established earlier in this decade, North
Korea may want to be more assertive when it comes to sharing its space
technology expertise in a conventional and much more commercial way, even if it
results in an awkward competition with China down the road.
"Pyongyang already uses its missile technology as an economic tool - renting
out technicians and scientists and selling parts and designs to other countries
like Pakistan and Iran. A proven satellite launch capability can expand that
list of potential paying clients throughout the developing world, where a
nascent space race seems to be in the works," said Baker.
It is hard to say how far North Korea might be prepared to go in terms of
providing complete turn-key services - launch vehicle, launch services, and
even perhaps tracking and control facilities along with various payload options
- to countries who now rely on the Chinese or Russians for launches, for
Granted, it may be premature to talk about North Korea's involvement in the
broader space commerce sector given that the primary question is what to do
about North Korea's satellite if and when it is launched.
An editorial in the conservative Washington Times on March 1 - "A chance to
shoot down North Korea missile?" - stated that, "the North Koreans have an
instinct for poking us in the eye whenever they can," one US government
observer of North Korean affairs told us, "and they see a weakness".
"In this case the weakness is our 'ambivalence towards meeting a military
challenge with military force,'" the editorial goes on to say.
North Koreans see Barack Obama as 'an articulate Jimmy Carter', says our
observer. During the 1994 crisis with North Korea over their nuclear program,
president Bill Clinton had already begun preparations for military action when
the peripatetic Jimmy Carter swooped into Pyongyang and emerged with a promise
from Kim Jong-il to freeze nuclear production.
This deal became enshrined in treaty later that year as the Agreed Framework,
which gave North Korea the breathing space to continue its nuclear program with
help from the network of Pakistani nuclear secrets peddler Abdul Qadeer Khan,
ultimately achieving nuclear weapons capability in 2006.
"If nothing else, taking out the North Korean missile would demonstrate
American resolve in the face of communist provocation. Of course, it would help
if the administration was committed to the missile defense mission. Perhaps the
continually increasing missile capabilities of various rogue states will help
modify the administration's views.
Furukawa advises everyone to
step back and look closely at the start of the last US administration.
"At the beginning of the first term of the Bush administration, the DPRK showed
a relatively gentle posture, but just received a harsh response from Bush. The
DPRK may have learned this bitter lesson, and seemingly intends to send a
different message to Obama," said Furukawa, who added that this could all be
unfolding because high ranking members of the North Korean leadership, "may
want to celebrate the improvement of the health of their Dear Leader, or
strengthen the internal spiritual cohesion prior to some major domestic
North Korea might push the button at any moment, although right now a good
guess for the launch date would be on or around March 21. As for China, it must
be ready to implement Plan B.
Peter J Brown is a satellite journalist from Maine, USA.