By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
The satellite that North Korea announced it will put into orbit on 15 April, the hundredth birthday of regime founder Kim Il-sung, has no military target. Yet it could well destroy prospects for an improved relationship with the US that was set in train just two weeks ago with the acclaimed Leap Day deal.
Under that deal the US agreed to provide food aid in exchange for a North Korean moratorium on nuclear tests, uranium enrichment at one of its facilities, and ‘long-range missile launches’. (The positive momentum started by the deal continued in informal talks in New York over last weekend, when North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator proposed diplomatic liaison offices in both capitals.)
But the moratorium agreement was ambiguous about exactly what activity was to be stopped. At a seminar last night at the Daiwa Foundation, I predicted trouble over this issue because North Korea does not consider space-launch rockets to be missiles. This was the case in April 2009, when North Korea launched the Unha-2, which failed to put a satellite into orbit and was seen as a slap in the face of the new Obama administration.
Space launches differ from ballistic-missile tests in their purpose and trajectory. Where space launches only need to go up, ballistic missiles must also come down, to securely deliver their payload, and need to survive atmospheric re-entry. The 2011 IISS Strategic Dossier on North Korean Security Challenges describes the differences in detail (p. 155). But because satellite-launch rockets and ballistic missiles share the same bodies, engines, launch sites and other development processes, they are intricately linked. The satellite launch also provides missile-development information regarding propulsion, guidance and operational aspects.
That is why most nations insisted that the Unha-2 test violated the ban under UN Security Council Resolution 1718 on ‘any launch using ballistic missile technology’ and UNSCR 1874 on ‘all activities related to [North Korea's] ballistic missile programme’. When the Security Council mildly rebuked North Korea for that test, Pyongyang’s response was to abrogate all past agreements and to conduct a second nuclear test.
It is easy to see events now playing out as they did three years ago. The 15 April test launch will undoubtedly provoke a similar rebuke. Given the symbolism of the satellite launch on Kim Il-sung’s birthday, that rebuke will not be worn lightly. It would not be too surprising if Pyongyang then abrogated the Leap Day deal and set off another nuclear explosion.
When the North Korean leadership approved the Leap Day deal they must have known that a satellite launch was planned. Some may therefore conclude that the deal was a ruse, and that North Korea has no real intention to settle differences. But that is too hasty a conclusion. The contradictory messages sent by the 29 February deal and the 16 March satellite-launch announcement could also indicate policy splits in the new leadership arrangement. If the satellite- launch announcement had come a day earlier, we might even call it the Ides of March stabbing.