International Order & Conflict
Commentary

Krepon and Romberg on North Korea’s Planned Satellite Launch

in Program

The “leap day” agreement between the DPRK
and the Obama administration may not last more than one month if Pyongyang
follows through with its announced plans to place a satellite in low earth
orbit. North Korean officials argue that a “space launch” is different
from a “long-range” ballistic missile launch, which they promised to
suspend on leap day. In North Korea’s case, this is a distinction without a
difference, as the missiles it uses for space and military purposes are
virtually indistinguishable, and as the North’s space program is more virtual
than real. Pyongyang tried two prior satellite launches in 2006 and 2009, both
of which were unsuccessful. The urgency of a third attempt, so soon after the
leap day agreement, may well be linked to upcoming celebrations of the centennial of Kim Il-sung’s birth. North
Korea’s upcoming space launch is less about the satellite than about
reinforcing national esteem and making thinly-veiled threats to mask systemic
weaknesses. It may also be about a leadership transition that remains opaque to
outsiders.

North Korea’s “space” program reaffirms its
outlier status.  The International Telecommunications Union (ITU)
manages the increasingly precious commodity of orbital slots.  North Korea
has shown no regard for the ITU or its procedures.  Iran also flagrantly
disregards fledgling and partial rules of the road in space relating to
orbital slots, as well as by engaging in harmful, purposeful interference
with other satellites, which is contrary to the ITU’s charter.

The actions of North Korea and Iran clarify the
utility of an International Code of Conduct for responsible space-faring
nations.  Rules of the road for space are in need of clarification and
reinforcement, especially with respect to debris mitigation, space traffic
management, and purposeful, harmful interference. The utility of a Code of
Conduct rests on whether its provisions apply to major space-faring
nations, not whether they apply to outliers. If outliers wish to be included in
the company of responsible nations, one way to do so is by following rules
of the road clarified in an International Code of Conduct for space.
   

– By Michael Krepon

***

 

North
Korea is clearly responsible for the current controversy and impending scuttling
of the February 29 US-DPRK “Leap Day deal.” Its intended “satellite launch” is
not only a patent violation a long series of UN Security Council resolutions
and Presidential Statements (including UNSCR 1874 of June 2009 that “Demands
that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using
ballistic missile technology
“) but also crosses a redline established by
the U.S. side in negotiating the “agreement” of February 29. In that agreement,
North Korea committed to a moratorium on long-range missile tests, and it was
clearly told that, even if it believed that (as Pyongyang later put it), “the
launch of the working satellite is an issue fundamentally different from that
of a long-range missile,” from a US perspective any such launch not only would violate
UN resolutions but would also negate the new agreement.

But
those facts only beg two questions: Why did North Korea sign onto the February
29 agreement at all, since it apparently has been planning for some time to
launch a “satellite” in celebration of Kim Il-Sung’s 100th birth
anniversary? And why did the U.S. agree to that deal if, as seems the case, the
North openly asserted to American negotiators that it did not feel constrained
by UN Security Council resolutions from such a “satellite launch”?

North
Korea surely recalled that the Obama administration cancelled plans for
bilateral talks in early 2009 over Pyongyang’s insistence on making an
attempted “satellite launch” at that time. Did it now believe that the US
wanted so badly to obtain suspension of the North’s known uranium enrichment
facility at Yongbyon and to confirm “disablement” of the plutonium-based 5MW
reactor, that it would overlook the launch this time? Surely it could not have
been so naïve.

Or
does this action by Pyongyang, scuttling the agreement after a few short weeks
reflect the existence of disputes in Pyongyang, with the foreign ministry
prevailing for a time in getting approval for the February 29 agreement, but
with the military prevailing in the end with the new leader, Kim Jung Un, insisting
on proceeding with a launch. Noteworthy here is that, three days after the
February 29 announcements, the DPRK military held a press conference where a senior
North Korean defense official proclaimed “Our army has not even once had faith in any dialogue or negotiation with
the United States.”

As
for why the US struck the deal in light of the very uncertain prospects, one
presumes that the judgment was that North Korea wouldn’t make the deal only to
destroy it, at least not in such a short period of time. Still, before making
the February 29 announcement, should the US not only have warned the North
about the consequences of a launch (as it did) but, in light of a DPRK
reassertion if its “right” to conduct such a launch, should it not also have nailed
down that Pyongyang would not launch a satellite at any point in the coming
months? Arguably so. But the assumption in Washington, as in Seoul and other
capitals, was that the all-too-typical “in your face” assertion of such a DPRK  “right” was not the same thing as an
inevitability that there would be a launch, and indeed there were reasons to
assume the North would hold off for now.

The
North’s subsequent invitation to the IAEA to send inspectors to verify the
shutdown of the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon and the fact that the
5MW plutonium reactor is “disabled” was presumably designed to put the U.S. on
the spot: Do you want to be the one to cancel the deal? This position is
based on a false premise, as the North has already laid the ground for
vitiating the agreement. But it could set off some debate about whether the US should
proceed with food aid or not. After all, the American position has consistently
been that humanitarian assistance (and this program was destined-on a monitored
basis-for mothers, young children, and handicapped) is not politically
conditioned. But realistically this would seem out of the question, so the food
aid appears destined, for now, to remain undelivered. And that will provide
North Korea with the excuse not to follow through on its other commitments.

Still,
as American officials have repeatedly said, as welcome as the February 29
agreement was, the value of the North’s commitments was always understood to be
limited; no one believes that the Yongbyon uranium enrichment facility is the
only one the North has, so implementation of the agreement would really do little
or nothing to curtail production of fissile material, essential work on
miniaturization of  a nuclear warhead,
and further efforts to perfect long-range missiles gussied up as “satellite
launches.”

More
important, however, Pyongyang’s action is not a good sign either for
denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula-we can probably expect a third nuclear
test (perhaps uranium based) in the not too distant future, “justified” as in
2006 and 2009 by the predictable international condemnation of the missile
launch-or for future stability there.

 – Alan
D. Romberg

 

Photo Credit: Panorama

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