North Korea announced yesterday that it had successfully placed a satellite into orbit atop its three-stage Unha rocket. “The launch of the second version of our Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite from the Sohae Space Centre … on December 12 was successful,” North Korea’s news agency, KCNA, reported. “The satellite has entered the orbit as planned,” it added. Efforts to launch a satellite last April failed when the rocket exploded moments after lift-off. This time, however, both South Korea and Japan confirmed that all three stages from today’s launch separated successfully, and a U.S. military official acknowledged that “[i]nitial indications are that the missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.”
The timing of the launch coincides with the one-year anniversary of the death of North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, who passed away on December 17, 2011. The launch also falls within the centennial of the birth of North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung, and is expected to help consolidate the rule of the new leader, Kim Jong Un. But the launch may also be in response partly to an agreement by the United States last month which allows South Korea to build ballistic missiles with a range of 800 meters, allowing it to target all of North Korea’s territory. South Korean armed forces, which fall under U.S. military command, were formerly limited to missiles with a range of 300 meters. Moreover, North and South Korea are both engaged in developing satellite launch capability, with South Korea announcing postponement of its third attempt last month, after two previous failures.
While North Korea claims its intentions have been to place a satellite in orbit, other countries allege that its space program is a thinly veiled attempt to develop long-range ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads as far as the shores of the United States. The Six Party denuclearization talks between North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia broke down five years ago when the outgoing Bush administration demanded intrusive inspections of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, which North Korea considered a violation of its sovereignty, and when the incoming administration of South Korean President Lee Myung Bak cut off aid to North Korea in an effort to pressure it into giving up its nuclear weapons.
Although an international response to North Korea’s launch yesterday has yet to take shape, approaches to restraining North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons generally divide along neo-Cold War lines with the United States, South Korea, and Japan typically seeking punitive sanctions against North Korea, and China urging reconciliation. The United States, which maintains sophisticated satellite surveillance of North Korea, called today’s launch “highly provocative,” Japan called it “extremely regrettable,” and South Korea convened an emergency security meeting in Seoul.
While urging North Korea to “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program,” China also called for “the resumption of the long stalled six party talks.” It advised that “[i]n international relations, as in life, the best way to make an enemy of a country is to treat it like one.” As China’s official news agency, Xinhua stated, “This rule of thumb is also true with making friends.”
Underlying regional responses to North Korea’s successful launch is the irresolution of the Korean War. North Korea remains locked in the oldest adversarial relationship of the Cold War with the U.S. and its allies. Nearly 60 years old, the 1953 armistice agreement has yet to be replaced with a peace treaty. Although it has regularly pressed the United States for a peace treaty to end the Korean War, North Korea has resisted demands by the U.S. and South Korea to disarm unilaterally in the absence of formal agreements to guarantee its security, and it continues to develop nuclear weapons, justifying them as a defensive measure. South Korea and Japan remain under the nuclear umbrella of the U.S, and the region continues to be one of the most heavily militarized in the world.
*Paul Liem is Board Chairperson of the Korea Policy Institute.