U.N. Security Council May Lack Unified Response to Anticipated North Korean Rocket Launch

By Patrick Goodenough | April 3, 2009 | 5:23 AM EDT

South Korean protesters shout slogans during a rally against North Korea's recent military policy near the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, April 3, 2009.

(CNSNews.com) – The U.S., Japan and South Korea reportedly have agreed to push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution against North Korea if the communist country goes ahead with its anticipated rocket launch in the coming days, but with Pyongyang claiming the legal right to launch a satellite, Chinese and Russian support is far from assured.
A senior South Korean government official said Thursday that Japan – a non-permanent Security Council member – would introduce a resolution in the event of a launch. Envoys from the three allies met in Washington last week to coordinate a response, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak met separately with President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso in London this week.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said Thursday a launch “would require urgent discussion and consideration by the Security Council.”
China and Russia, permanent members of the Security Council, have not vetoed North Korean resolutions in the past, but they frequently have used the threat of veto to block or water down measures.
Getting their support this time will be complicated by the fact that North Korea claims it is legally permitted to go ahead with the launch.
Many experts believe that North Korea does, as it claims, aim to shoot a satellite into orbit. In contrast to previous launches, it has this time taken the required procedural steps – informing international maritime and aviation authorities about the planned launch dates and likely danger zones for falling debris.
It gave no such advance warning before successfully testing an intermediate-range Taepodong-1 ballistic missile in 1998, or before its abortive test of a long-range Taepodong-2, along with other shorter-range missiles, in 2006.
Also, North Korea on March 10 finally signed a United Nations space treaty, after shunning it for more than four decades. It signed the Outer Space Treaty in Russia, one of the depository governments for the convention.
On the same day, Pyongyang also signed a separate U.N. treaty, on the registration of objects launched into space.
The Outer Space Treaty declares that space “shall be free for exploration and use by all states without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law.”
On the other hand, Security Council resolutions 1695 and 1718, passed respectively after North Korea’s failed July 2006 Taepodong-2 test and its nuclear test three months later, both instruct North Korea to suspend not just ballistic missile launches but “all activities related to its ballistic missile program.”
Resolution 1718 invokes Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, the section that permits the use of military force and non-military action to “restore international peace and security.”
Citing the dual-use nature of space launch vehicles, the U.S. and its allies argue that a launch will violate the resolutions, whether the rocket carries a satellite or not.
“Whether it is a satellite or a missile, the technology is the same,” South Korean Defense Minister Lee Sang-hee told lawmakers in Seoul on Wednesday. “Even if it is a satellite, the technology behind it can be converted for use on a missile. That is the view shared by South Korea and the United States.”
A multi-stage rocket used to put a satellite into orbit would be based on the Taepodong-2, and the launch would therefore serve to test the Stalinist state’s intercontinental ballistic missile technology.
When Iran last February shot a small communications satellite into space, becoming just the 10th country with the proven capability to do so, the achievement was widely viewed as further evidence of Tehran’s fast-developing ballistic missile capability, and prompted fresh calls for the U.S. to speed up missile defense plans in Europe.
North Korea has been cooperating with Iran in the missile field for decades, and the two regimes’ launches are likely coordinated.
As North Korea claims to be legally entitled to launch a satellite, so Tokyo claims, under Japanese law, to be legally entitled to shoot it down if it threatens Japan.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev joined Obama in London in a call for North Korea to “exercise restraint and observe relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions,” but their statement referred specifically to a “ballistic missile launch.”
On Monday, Russian ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin said in Moscow that if North Korea launched a satellite, a legal “gray zone” would be created, “because U.N. Security Council resolution 1718 does not directly ban the launching of satellites,” Interfax reported.
Apart from being veto-wielding permanent Security Council members, Russia and China also are members of the “six party” group that has since 2003 been seeking a negotiated resolution to the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs. North Korea’s other partners in the talks are the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
‘Military implications’
The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance in the U.S. wrote this week to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, urging him to deploy all missile defense assets in the Pacific region ahead of the launch.

A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer fires a missile during the training exercise in the Pacific Ocean on March 26, 2009. The USS Benfold is equipped with an Aegis system designed to detect, track, engage and destroy ballistic missiles during their final phase of flight. (DoD photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

“While I recognize the right of every sovereign nation to pursue a peaceful space program, I believe you would agree that the upcoming North Korean ‘space launch’ could very well have military implications for the future and in the near term, threaten Alaska, Hawaii or other regions of the United States,” wrote MDAA chairman Riki Ellison.
“I urge that you consider activating all available missile defense assets to the Pacific to protect against an errant space launch attempt or a ballistic missile launch that threatens the United Stares or our allies,” he said.
On Thursday, the North Korean military in a statement threatened to strike “major targets” in Japan if Tokyo intercepts its rocket.
In a new report, the International Crisis Group urged against “over-reaction” to a North Korean launch, including attempts to shoot down the rocket.
The think tank noted that Russia and China would likely argue that North Korea, like any other nation, is entitled to launch a satellite.
“What is needed is a calm, coordinated response from the key actors to raise pressure on Pyongyang to return to the [six-party] talks rather than a divided reaction that only fulfils the North’s desire to widen splits among its neighbors,” it said.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow