Krepon and Romberg on North Korea's Planned Satellite Launch

Stimson Spotlight

Krepon and Romberg on North Korea's Planned Satellite Launch

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