North Korean “Missile” Test or Just Looking for Some Street Cred?
North Korea has said it plans to launch its controversial Unha-3 (Korean for “Galaxy”) rocket sometime between Thursday and Monday. It is known outside the North as the Teapodong-3, theoretically capable of reaching US territory, according to Baek Seung-Joo of the Korea Institute for Defence Analyses. Weather conditions on the peninsula, however, favor either a Thursday or Saturday launch according to meteorological reports. With Thursday’s window now closed Saturday is the next likely launch opportunity. Until then much of the region remains tense leaving the rest, namely China calling for calm and sober restraint amidst growing international concern over the real intentions of the North Korean government.
This is their fourth, and according to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), legitimate attempt at becoming the world’s 10th space faring nation after Iran joined the small club in 2009 when their successful orbital launch placed the Omid data-processing satellite into low Earth orbit with the help of the Safir SLV rocket – both domestically developed in close cooperation with North Korea. The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite (“bright star”) is North Korea’s own indigenous creation and is slated to be launched southward from the Sohae satellite launch station in Cholsan County, North Phyongan Province using the Unha-3 long-range rocket.
The Korean Committee of Space Technology, the DPRK’s equivalent to NASA, has thus far failed to deliver this technological and political accomplishment. With the upcoming 100th year anniversary of the birth of its founding president Kim Il-Sung success is crucial to solidifying the legitimacy of the newly ensconced hermit king Kim Jun-Un, son of the late sunglass dictator Kim Jung-Il.
The first attempt in 1998 to launch a test satellite failed when a Paektusan rocket, derived from a Taepodong intermediate-range ballistic missile fell apart shortly after launch. The second attempt in 2006 featuring a slightly modified and larger Taepodong-2 was met with similar success falling apart after only 40 seconds. The latest attempt in 2009 displayed further challenges as Unha-2 and the Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite broke up over the Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean although North Korea maintains it successfully put its payload in orbit.
While the US State Department called the newly proposed launch “highly provocative” and a threat to regional security other scenarios are equally plausible, potentially less nefarious and far more realistic. Iran’s success in space for instance coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. In this case North Korea could equally benefit from a public relations event on a similar national holiday. After all who can put a price on prestige? A rocketry badge would be some welcomed flare to an otherwise drab national tunic and it is no doubt attractive to an oppressive oligarchy with little accomplishments to flaunt internationally.
Most importantly, however, what would bragging rights look like if impoverished North Korea beat out technologically superior South Korea in the peninsula’s space race? Seoul’s STSAT-2A and STSAT-2B satellites have ironically shared the fate of their northern counterparts. Should Ponyang win this round of PR the benefits while limited abroad would be political gold back home.
Mirroring the present day scenario, the United States, South Korea and Japan accused the launch in 2009 of being merely an opportunity to test technology that could be used in the future to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile tipped with a nuclear warhead and or engage in proliferation with rogue states.
Considering the aforementioned incentives it does come off odd when establishment news outlets like the Financial Times omit these obvious possibilities and instead report yesterday:
“Washington faces a dilemma over how to respond to the launch, partly because it has no real insight into the motivation. North Korea says the rocket will carry a weather satellite into orbit, but the US and other countries believe the launch is a pretext to test an intercontinental ballistic missile.”
What would seem more likely? For a country to test parts of a well known and now obsolete missile system developed by the Soviets in 1964 or attempt to cultivate, with what they have on hand, indigenous technology wholly independent of western hegemony? Hegemony recently evidenced in the $970 million dollar joint military base on South Korea’s Jeju Island and permanent home for the US military in northern Australia.
According to the UCS Satellite Database there are a total of 994 operating satellites in orbit and most of them are controlled by the US, Russia and China – almost half by the US. This is not to say North Korea likely has the ability to wildly enhance your Direct TV experience or anticipate the next big quake in California, but the current satellite club doesn’t seem very “free market” let alone competitive.
This alternative perspective from outside the Washington consensus also sheds doubt on the legitimacy of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent comments:
“This launch will give credence to the view that North Korean leaders see improved relations with the outside world as a threat to their system,” she told cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “And recent history strongly suggests that additional provocations may follow.”
The question is, are “improved relations” beneficial when sovereignty is being infringed? There is little respect in a multinational world for states or national rights, but self-determination is a sticking point for many countries. North Korea walked away from the Six Party Talks in 2009 because of the UN Security Council’s condemnation of their “missile” launch or more appropriately their rocket launch.
Prior to the launch on March 12th, the DPRK announced it had signed the Outer Space Treaty and the Registration Convention. It also informed the ICAO and IMO that it would conduct a satellite launch between April 4-8th, during a fixed launch window. While a skeptic may see these attempts at international cooperation as merely dressing over more dubious goals it does comport with real desires of all nations to be independent, space worthy and free to explore alternative measures of energy whether they be green or nuclear.
North Korea just prior to the announcement of its newest launch not only invited the IAEA back in for more investigation of its nuclear program, but also invited 8 countries including Japan, the US, China and Russia, and the European Space Agency to observe the launch and verify for themselves that the DPRK desires to “strictly abide by relevant international regulations and usage concerning the launch of scientific and technological satellites for peaceful purposes.”