SEOUL - The United States and others may be on shaky ground if they think they
can pin a charge of "violation of international law" on North Korea for putting
a satellite into orbit.
With no serious international court of last resort in any authority to decide
on the right or wrong of launching a long-range missile disguised as a
satellite, countries do have the right to international space exploration. Just
check out the Outer Space Treaty, otherwise known as the "Treaty on Principles
Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space
including the Mood and Other Celestial Bodies", signed by North
Korea along with just about every other space-minded country more than 40 years
The fact that hardly anyone believes North Korea's upcoming missile is poised
on the pad all for the sake of launching a satellite is not likely to impress
all members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council if the United States
tries to twist arms into a firm resolution of condemnation.
Neither China nor Russia is standing on the sidelines wishing the North Koreans
happy travels into outer space, but they may be reluctant to vote in favor of
any shrill denunciations from the Security Council. The Chinese in particular,
as North Korea's only real ally and source of sustenance to feed and fuel the
regime, aren't expected to be all that sympathetic.
The sense is that North Korean emissaries have been filling the Chinese in on
their plans for several months, and the Chinese have been adopting a stance of
studied moderation, urging them to return to the six-party talks on getting rid
of their nuclear weapons program, but not exactly warning them against the idea
of testing out their Taepodong-2 missile. Why should China care all that much,
analysts ask, if the missile's trajectory will be over Japan, if the precedent
of the Taepodong-1, launched on August 31, 1998, is any guide?
Under the circumstances, some observers believe a more sensible response might
be to applaud North Korea for its success if the satellite that eyes-in-the-sky
see Taepodong-2 carrying on the launch pad actually goes successfully into
orbit. Taepodong-1 also carried a satellite, but it disintegrated in the
northern Pacific after roaring over the main Japanese island of Honshu.
The most carefully enunciated argument for the legality of Taepodong-2 as a
booster vehicle for a satellite comes from the International Crisis Group
(ICG), a Belgian-based organization financed by financier George Soros.
ICG warns of "the risks of overreaction" in a report warning that a huge
international fuss over the missile launch "would strengthen hardliners in
Pyongyang", especially if North Korea can boast of having succeeded in lofting
a satellite. "The Outer Space Treaty stipulates that all nations have the right
to the peaceful exploration of outer space," says the ICG report, citing the
treaty's words, "without discrimination of any kind". North Korea, the report
goes on, "does seem to have a genuine interest in establishing a space-launch
Against this view, however, is the reality that the UN Security Council in 2006
adopted a resolution demanding that North Korea "suspend all activities related
to its ballistic missile program, and in this context re-establish its
pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launching". China and
Russia joined other members in approving that resolution after North Korea in
early July fired off seven missiles, including six short- and mid-range Scuds
and Rodongs and a long-range Taepodong-2 that fizzled 40 seconds after launch.
Then, after North Korea shocked the world on October 9, 2006, with its first
and so far only nuclear test, the Security Council came out with another
resolution stating that North Korea "shall suspend all activities related to
its ballistic missile program and in this context re-establish its pre-existing
commitments to a moratorium on missile launching".
It may still be debatable how much real weight a UN resolution carries under
international law. Certainly, no UN police force is going to try to enforce
such a resolution. North Korea, though, clearly figures on beating the rap
entirely by loading up the missile with a satellite.
"When other countries launch a satellite, no one condemns them," said Daniel
Pinkston, the ICG's deputy project for Northeast Asia. "In a way, this is a
trap. They can say we played by the rules."
Pinkston agrees, however, that the process of firing off a Taepodong-2 laden
with a satellite would certainly serve as a test of the missile's utility for
carrying a nuclear warhead. "You can convert an ICBM [inter-continental
ballistic missile] or space-launch vehicle," he noted. "It's a dual-use
technology." The difference would simply be "the rate of acceleration and the
nature of the trajectory", he said. "A warhead you want to come back to Earth,
whereas a space launch you want to go up."
With North Korea announcing the launch for any time over a four-day period from
early Saturday morning to Tuesday evening, an array of military might is
waiting in the waters between North Korea and Japan, in the skies off the North
Korean coast and on land in Japan. The worst-case scenario, experts agree, is
an unexpected incident, possibly an aerial clash between North Korean and
American or South Korean planes in view of loud North Korean threats to blast
away at anyone bent on interfering with "preparations".
Barring the unexpected, however, the missile is likely to roar on its way
without interference. The Americans and South Koreans have already said they
won't try to stop it, even though the Americans seem to think the Aegis-class
guidance systems on the two destroyers they've sent to the scene are capable of
blowing it out of the skies if they can figure out where it's going and are
fast enough to respond.
The Japanese appear considerably more interested in a decisive response. Aside
from sending two or three of their own Aegis-class destroyers into the same
waters, they're talking about firing Patriot missiles at any sign of debris
from the missile or the satellite's launch vehicles falling on Japan. Those
fine words, though, are seen as rhetoric to give Japan's Prime Minister Taro
Aso an appearance of firmness as he faces elections on his own front.
The tough talk of US President Barack Obama is even less credible, considering
that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already said the US won't fire on
the missile unless it's on its way to American targets. Obama and South Korea's
President Lee Myung-bak appeared to be reading off well-crafted scripts as they
agreed in London on such familiar points as "the staunchness of the Korea-US
alliance" and the need for "a stern and united response" if North Korea goes
through with the launch.
There was something strangely deja vu about the turn of phrase in the report
from the US and South Korean sides of their commitment to negotiations. "The
two leaders have agreed to pursue complete and verifiable dismantlement of the
North's nuclear weapons program, based on close Korea-US coordination," said
the official statement on the meeting.
In separate meetings with China's President Hu Jintao and Russia's Dmitry
Medvedev, Obama continued to press for support for the "stern" US stand.
Medvedev agreed that the North Korean launch "would be damaging to peace and
stability". The Chinese president, if anything, seemed less enthusiastic. All
Obama and Hu could agree on, according to the US side, was "to maintain close
communication and coordination and to work together for the settlement of
With that kind of lukewarm approbation, the US faces a tough battle in the UN
Security Council. Then again, some observers wonder how dedicated is Obama to
combating a growing Chinese threat in the region - or risking war over North
Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of
forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.