N. Korea’s long-range rocket launch

Within a month of leaving the international community in awe with its Hydrogen bomb test on January 6, North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has surprised the world once again by launching a long-range rocket called “Kwangmyongsong-4” (Shinning star) into orbit on February 7, 2016. Just a day before the anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army in 1948, the satellite launch using ballistic missile technology represents yet another destabilising and provocative action and is a flagrant violation of multiple UNSC resolutions. However, there are diverse ways to understand the rocket launch at this point of time by the Communist state.

The launching act can boost the image of Kim Jong-un’s leadership further in the coming Workers Party Congress going to be held in May 2016, after thirty-six years. The act also carries a message that the Communist nation is not lagging behind in terms of technology. The action has, however, earned the ire of the 15-member United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The world body has condemned the launch in a short statement following an emergency meeting, saying that “further significant measures” are now being considered. Assuming power after his father Kim Jong-il died late in 2011, in just a four years, Kim Jong-un has led two of the North’s four nuclear tests and three long-range rocket launches.

The end result of the launch is that North Korea would further get isolated from the international community and more sanctions could be imposed in the future. For Pyongyang, the launch put a weather monitor satellite in the orbit and North Korea claims that the development constitutes peaceful exploration and use of space by abiding fully by international regulations and practices. The main applications of the earth satellite along with the previous satellites launched by the isolated nation is to monitor the weather, mapping natural resources, and forest distribution data that might help farmers improve their crops.

Nevertheless, North Korea, which became a signatory to the 1966 Outer Space Treaty in 2009, argues that the country alone cannot be denied the universal right to the scientific exploration of space simply because of the convergence of civil and military technology.

The US-led allies view the launch as a part of the program to develop a nuclear-tipped Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), ultimately aimed at striking the US mainland. North Korea has denied claims by Washington, Seoul, Tokyo, and the United Nations that its space launches are intended to test ballistic missile technology and thus, banned under international resolutions. Instead, it has said its space launches are strictly for peaceful purposes.

The Outer Space Treaty recognises the right of every member country to explore space for scientific and economic purposes. As a country suffering from acute weather irregularities and being surrounded by satellite-operating states, North Korea has a strong and genuine reason for joining the select league of countries with weather monitor satellites. However, this right was curtailed by U.N. resolutions because of its behavior in the past, such as nuclear experiments and long-range missile launches. Previously, the UNSC had passed Resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087, and 2094 barring the Communist nation from nuclear testing and any launch using ballistic missile technology in future. North Korea claimed that it marked a major advance in developing the country’s science and technology, economy, and defense capability by legitimately exercising the right to use space for independent and peaceful purposes. The inclusion of “defense” in that statement could be irritating to its neighbors. However, South Korea, Japan, and the USA and the security experts in the region have viewed the rocket launch as “highly provocative” as it is more about the testing of ballistic missile technology. The US viewed that the successful launch puts Pyongyang one step closer to having the capability to strike the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile.

In view of this launch, the Conservative ruling South Korean President Park Geun-hye called the launch a “challenge to world peace”, and announced it would begin talks with Washington to deploy the most controversial defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) which can intercept missiles in flight itself. Beijing is highly critical to deploy such kind of defense technology on Korean peninsula because the kind of radar system can destabilise the security balance in the East-Asian region.

On the diplomatic front, there are few immediate options that the U.S., Japan and South Korea have right now. China has expressed “regret” over the satellite launch. Despite being Pyongyang’s only reliable ally, even Beijing does not have many policy options at its disposal when it comes to influencing Pyongyang’s behavior. Beijing can rein in Pyongyang by shutting down all economic relations, but that would likely result in an exodus of refugees in China. As of now, over 2 million ethnic Koreans are living in Chinese north east prefecture Yan Bian. China is very cautious and may not let this population swell further in its backyard.

To conclude, perhaps the satellite launch might end up in DPRK facing more sanctions in the future. But, these possible measures may not work as a deterrent for Pyongyang as a good number of sanctions were already imposed by the international community since the last decade and they failed to deter from such adventures. In the long term, Pyongyang can manage to strengthen its bargaining position through the successful rocket launch. In 1998 when Pyongyang attempted to put a satellite into orbit the isolated nation succeeded to gain political leverage at a diplomatic level. Although the launch appears as a violation of U.N. resolutions, the actors in the region and international community must be pragmatic and moderate to maintain the overall peace and stability of the peninsula instead of escalating tension in the region.

(Dr. Sudhakar Vaddi is a Research Assistant at Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS), JNU, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)
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