What's good for Iran is bad for
Pyongyang By John Feffer
WASHINGTON - In early February, Iran
launched its third successful commercial satellite
in three years. The Barack Obama administration,
the United Nations and the news media barely
acknowledged the accomplishment. North Korea, on
the other hand, has created a furor each of the
three times its satellites failed to reach orbit.
Its latest effort, on April 13, broke up
within two minutes of launch. Pyongyang
acknowledged the failure and went on with its
celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the birth
of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung.
Obama administration immediately condemned the
North Korean launch. It followed through on its
threat to suspend its
participation in the
February 29 agreement that would have sent 240,000
tonnes of food assistance to North Korea.
"We want to make clear to them.that each
step that they take in terms of provocations will
only lead to a deeper isolation, increase
consequences," stated Ben Rhodes, deputy national
security advisor for strategic communications.
"And frankly, that's not just a message they're
hearing from us, they're hearing it from the
Chinese and the Russians as well."
United Nations Security Council (UNSC) released a
"presidential statement" on April 16 accusing
North Korea of violating a 2009 sanctions
resolution that barred the country from missile
tests, including satellite launches. The council's
sanctions committee will look into freezing the
assets of additional North Korean entities and
preventing additional "proliferation-sensitive
technology" from entering or exiting the country.
Iran and North Korea are both already
subject to considerable sanctions, and the United
States routinely expresses concerns over the
missile programs of both countries. That hasn't
prevented either country from moving forward with
its space program.
Iran and North Korea
view satellites as a sign of technological
achievement and, given that satellites are a
multi-billion-dollar industry, potential economic
gain. North Korea is additionally motivated to get
a satellite in orbit because of the two-time
failure of South Korea to launch one of its own.
So attractive is the prospect of having a
satellite in orbit - and the requisite rocket
capability - that North Korea gave up the promised
US food aid just on the eve of its "barley hump",
when the winter stores are depleted and the new
barley crop has not yet come in.
the reason why Iran's satellite launches don't
attract nearly the same attention as North Korea's
lies in the origins of North Korea's space
program, which began with an unannounced 1998
launch that particularly shocked Japan.
"North Korea's apparent readiness to
launch multi-stage rockets back then with little
warning came as a surprise, one that it seems
we've never quite gotten over," an arms control
expert told Inter Press Service (IPS) on a
non-attribution basis. "Now add to that their
nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty [NPT] withdrawal
and nuclear tests, and these launches look very
"Iran, by contrast,
seems to avoid overflying other countries when
conducting space launches. Even though the UNSC
says they shouldn't be doing that sort of thing,
either, it never gets the same sort of reaction.
They're still in the NPT, of course."
Other factors include the lack of allied
support for North Korea. Iran, with its
considerable energy exports, continues to trade
with China, Russia, India and Turkey, and can
count on those countries for a measure of
diplomatic support. North Korea, by contrast, has
little to offer, and even its putative allies
Russia and China have joined in the condemnation
of its satellite launch.
In the aftermath
of the failed launch, Pyongyang has indicated that
it will pursue the construction of a larger
rocket. The South Korean government, meanwhile,
anticipates a third nuclear test from North Korea.
But the international community has few
levers with which to influence North Korean
behavior. The country is already heavily
sanctioned, and the UN will be hard-pressed to
find ways to tighten the screws.
United States is best advised to let the launch's
failure be its own 'punishment'," argues John
Delury, an assistant professor at Yonsei
University in Seoul. "Sanctions have long passed
the point of utility. Likewise 'tough' language
from the UNSC only plays into the hands of
hardliners in Pyongyang.
constructively, the diplomatic focal point - and
Beijing might want to take the lead here - should
be continuing with the plan to allow International
Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in to monitor the
freeze at Yongbyon. Were that to proceed,
President Obama would have justification for going
through with the US side of the Leap Day deal
after all. The alternative is probably an
intensified version of the worst of 2009-10."
In an April 13 New York Times op-ed,
Sung-Yoon Lee, a scholar of international politics
at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at
Tufts, takes the opposite tack. "Spectacular
failure though it was, North Korea's latest rocket
launching calls for punitive measures from America
and its allies," he writes. "Bad engineering is no
reason for complacency; the benchmark for American
policy must be North Korea's intent."
the better part of its term, the Obama
administration maintained a policy of "strategic
patience" toward North Korea. During an election
year, with many other issues competing for the
administration's attention, neither a proactive
nor a severely punitive approach is likely.
"I see relative continuity among the
United States, Japan, and South Korea, with the
exception being that there is little likelihood of
serious or high-level dialogue through the end of
the year," observes Scott Snyder, the director of
the Program on US-Korea Policy at the Council on
advantage currently comes from our respective
preoccupations with domestic politics. Otherwise,
I wonder whether there might have been the
prospect of a more robust response."