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North Korea’s ‘Satellite Launch’: A Balance Sheet
In spite of mounting criticism and dissuasion by its neighbors and the international community, North Korea obviously intends to proceed with its announced rocket launch in mid-April, supposedly to put a space satellite, Kwangmyongsong-3, into orbit. (Editor`s Note ―The North`s rocket exploded a few minutes into its flight on April 13.)
Pyongyang insists that it is acting in accordance with the wishes of the late leader Kim Jong-il. That is, the launch is for peaceful purposes and part of the centennial celebration of the birth of Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea. The North also claims that it informed the United States of the satellite launch when it was negotiating an agreement for food aid. Under a deal reached on February 29, Pyongyang vowed to freeze its uranium enrichment program (UEP) and the United States promised food shipments.
The general consensus is that the rocket launch was meticulously calculated and prepared while Kim Jong-il was alive and is not the byproduct of internal conflict and confusion since his death. Still, the North stands to suffer a backlash. The launch will deepen its international isolation and worsen already grim prospects of resolving its economic woes.
For North Korea, the primary purpose of developing and test-firing long-range rockets is to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) capable of reaching the continental United States. But there also are political and diplomatic objectives attached. First, Pyongyang intends to demonstrate to the outside world a stable power transition in progress from Kim Jong-il to his son, Jong-un. Second, by resisting international calls for a halt in the missile program, it is committed to intensify the solidarity and unity of the North Korean populace. Third, a hard-line faction presumably led by military forces may be intent on creating obstacles in the six-party negotiations over the North`s nuclear and missile programs to extract more concessions from the United States and other nations.
The North must also be counting on the launch to gain momentum for accelerating the development of missiles with nuclear warheads. Pyongyang conducted its first nuclear test three months after the test-firing of Taepodong-2 ballistic missile in 2006 and a second nuclear test a month after the launching of a missile supposedly carrying the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite in 2009.
While North Korea pursues these objectives, the five other countries in the six-party talks are entangled in their own political transition. This is curbing their influence on a wayward Pyongyang or their ability to take tough measures. Russia will be left hamstrung until early May when president-elect Vladimir Putin will be sworn into office. China, due to change its top leadership this autumn, will have little options to reassess its policy toward North Korea until new leaders are seated. Japan, stricken by frequent cabinet changes over the past six years, is overwhelmed by domestic political, economic and natural disaster issues so it can hardly pay close attention to foreign affairs. Both South Korea and the United States are mired in election campaigns – Korea`s general election at hand and the presidential elections of both countries in the fall – so they find it difficult to divert much attention to North Korea.
Taking advantage of these transitional developments in other countries, Pyongyang is employing a “carrot and stick” tactics of its own. That is, on the one hand, it displays its willingness to resume the stalled six-party talks, proposing to freeze its UEP and promising to readmit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. On the other hand, the North is committed to its long-range missile launch, posing a provocative challenge to the international community. Its double-edged ploy hinders policy coordination among other parties of the six-way talks, especially Seoul and Washington.
Beijing is displeased with Pyongyang`s nuclear and missile development, but it does not want North Korea to implode or to see a military clash flare up on the Korean peninsula. Therefore, while it expresses concerns about the North`s “satellite launch,” China will deliberately accede to Pyongyang`s vindication and oppose additional sanctions against North Korea, trying to resume the six-party negotiations. If the United States halts its food aid, the North will refuse to freeze its UEP and the reentry of IAEA inspectors, passing the buck to Washington. The scrapping of the February 29 agreement would end up with failing to prevent Pyongyang from conducting its missile launch and letting it continue uranium enrichment. In return, North Korea will not get food assistance, but it can claim its might and prestige have been upheld, gaining an excuse to keep up its nuclear and missile development programs.
Accordingly, the North Korean leadership may believe that the long-range missile launch would lead to more gains than losses for them. In actuality, however, the North will lose not only 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid but also opportunities for economic cooperation with other countries, further increasing its economic dependence on China. With the latest “satellite” issue, Pyongyang has placed a tremendous political and diplomatic burden on Beijing. What`s more, China has been reminded once again that the North`s nuclear weapons and missiles can threaten it. Although China is supporting and defending North Korea for now, it is quite possible that Beijing would eventually change its position at a certain stage.
The North`s latest move has also intensified international attention and concerns about North Korea`s weapons of mass destruction. The Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, which North Korea criticized, originally had no plans to discuss the North`s nuclear weapons and missiles. But Pyongyang`s announcement put the issue at the top of the summit agenda. By dashing the expectations of the international community and choosing to isolate itself further, North Korea is only increasing the insecurity of Kim Jong-un`s fledgling regime.