Pyongyang announced over the weekend that it plans to launch an “earth observation satellite” sometime between Dec. 10 and 22, a period that coincides with both the first anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death and presidential elections in South Korea.
After North Korea last April tried, and failed, to launch a satellite – using a carrier rocket that Western security experts say closely mirrors its Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile – the United States, which held the U.N. Security Council presidency that month, led efforts to formulate a response.
Three-and-a-half days later the council issued a statement condemning the action and paving the way for an extension of the list of nuclear and ballistic missile technology banned for transfer to and from North Korea.
The statement ended with the words, “The Security Council expresses its determination to take action accordingly in the event of a further DPRK launch or nuclear test.” DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s official name.
The statement fell short of a binding Security Council resolution, but U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice at the time defended it, noting it was “stronger and more explicit” than one following an earlier North Korean launch, in 2009.
Responding to the latest planned launch, South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young said in a statement if North Korea goes ahead it will be “confronted with a strong response from the international community as clearly stated in the U.N. Security Council presidential statement in April.”
“A North Korean ‘satellite’ launch would be a highly provocative act,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement after Pyongyang’s announcement. She said the U.S. was consulting closely with its regional allies and partners “on next steps.”
This would be the fifth launch by North Korea since 1998, when it fired a Taepodong-I long-range ballistic missile that sailed over Japan before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. In 2006 it tested a longer-range Taepodong-2 but that also failed, after around 40 seconds.
The 2009 Taepodong-2 retry failed too, although that flight lasted some 18 minutes – a distance of around 2,000 miles. Last April’s test saw the rocket fly for just 70 or so miles before disintegrating.
In its statement announcing the new attempt, the regime’s Committee for Space Technology said its scientists and technicians had analyzed defects revealed during the April launch, “deepening our work to enhance the credibility and accuracy of the satellite and the rocket.”
“We will blast off a working satellite that we have built based on our own strength and technology, to uphold the teaching left by great leader and comrade Kim Jong-il,” it said.
The planned action would violate Security Council resolutions passed in 2006 (prohibiting any “launch of a ballistic missile” and demanding that North Korea “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program”); and in 2009 (forbidding “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”)
Japan, South Korea get ready
The Japanese government said at the weekend it was making preparations to intercept and destroy the missile or any debris threatening to land on its territory.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda called for a strong international response.
North Korea’s other regional foe, South Korea, is also watching the launch preparations warily, and called the plan a “grave provocation.”
Seoul’s Yonhap news agency reported Monday that top government officials will meet the American, Japanese, Chinese and Russian ambassadors on Monday to discuss the issue.
Pyongyang has frequently in the past timed provocative actions around South Korean elections, and President Lee Myung-bak, whose term in office is drawing to an end, told reporters last week the North was “working hard to influence the upcoming election.” He said it would not succeed.
North Korea reviles the Lee government for putting the brakes on the “sunshine” policy of engagement with Pyongyang, pursued by his liberal predecessors, Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung.
South Korean presidential elections in the recent past have typically seen conservative candidates with hardline views of Pyongyang go up against liberals favoring engagement with the Stalinist regime.
The main candidates in the December 19 election are conservative Park Geun-hye, the daughter of an authoritarian former president; and liberal Moon Jae-in, a former chief of staff to the late President Roh.
The 11 months since Kim Jong-un succeeded his father has not witnessed the kind of softening many observers had hoped from the new young leader, and the belligerent rhetoric characteristic of the 17-year Kim Jong-il era has continued.
A typical statement from the regime’s official KCNA news agency, issued on Friday, lashed out at the “group of traitors” ruling South Korea. The Lee government comprised “war maniacs” and “bandits” who were “hell-bent” on war. It also accused the government of encouraging “human scum to spread leaflets slandering the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK.”
Yonhap cited a senior military in Seoul as saying North Korea had secretly invited foreign experts to help correct the mistakes behind the earlier launch failure.
No further details were given, but North Korea and Iran have collaborated for years, with Iran offering expertise from its own advancing ballistic missile program while North Korea provides the Iranians with uranium-enrichment know-how, experts believe.