After North Korea on April 5, 2009 launched what it said was a carrier rocket carrying a communications satellite into orbit – the U.S. military identified it as a Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile – President Obama declared that “rules must be binding, violations must be punished.”
He was referring to a Security Council (UNSC) resolution adopted three years earlier, resolution 1718 of Oct. 14, 2006, which demanded that North Korea “suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program,” including launches.
Yet despite Obama’s tough warning, a week of UNSC discussions in April 2009 ended with a critical but non-binding statement, essentially agreeing to enforce sanctions that had already been imposed 30 months earlier.
Despite the failure to secure a legally-binding resolution – a situation attributed to opposition by veto-wielding permanent members China and Russia – the Obama administration at the time characterized the council’s response as a strong one, with the White House saying in a statement that the president welcomed the “clear and united message.”
The UNSC did adopt a new resolution on North Korea two months later, but that occurred only after the regime carried out a nuclear test. Resolution 1874, which passed unanimously on June 12, 1009, included a demand that North Korea not conduct “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”
Now, with North Korea on the verge of yet another “satellite” launch – possibly as early as Thursday, the start of a five-day launch window it announced earlier – Clinton is again pledging action.
“Let me make absolutely clear that any launch by North Korea would be a serious, clear violation of their obligations under already existing U.N. Security Council resolutions 1718 and 1874,” she said after talks with her Japanese counterpart in Washington on Tuesday.
“We are consulting closely in capitals and at the United Nations in New York, and we will be pursuing appropriate action.” Neither she nor Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba would elaborate on what the “appropriate action” would be.
Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, argued Wednesday that once the launch takes place “the United States should press for another UNSC condemnatory statement that closes existing loopholes and imposes additional sanctions.”
“Washington must make clear to Beijing that continuing to obstruct a resolute international response will only engender more North Korean belligerence and a stronger allied response – neither of which is in China’s strategic interests.”
‘Stability on the peninsula’
North Korea is on the agenda at a meeting of G8 foreign ministers being hosted by Clinton.
“And further to the east, North Korea is readying a long-range ballistic missile launch over the East China Sea,” she told her G8 counterparts in Washington Wednesday. “It comes just weeks after North Korea agreed to a moratorium on missile testing; it violates multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions. I think we all share a strong interest in stability on the Korean peninsula, and we will be discussing how best to achieve that as well.”
On Wednesday the Japanese government, which said earlier it would shoot down the rocket this week if it threatens Japanese territory, set up an emergency center at the prime minister’s office to monitor the expected launch and manage a response.
Citing satellite images at the site of North Korea’s underground nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, South Korean security officials say the North also appears to be making preparations for a third nuclear test.
If it does so soon after the rocket launch, the pattern would resemble Kim Jong-il’s actions in 2006, when the first nuclear test took place three months after the first Taepodong-2 test; and in 2009, when the second nuclear test was carried out seven weeks after the “satellite” launch.
‘Peaceful space research’
North Korea claims the right to “peaceful” space research. In March 2009 it signed the U.N. Outer Space Treaty – having shunned it for more than four decades – which 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.”
Pyongyang has also taken the required procedural steps ahead of a satellite launch, informing international maritime and aviation authorities about the launch window and likely danger zones for falling debris.
But experts say the space program is being used to advance its ballistic missile capability: The multi-stage “Unha” carrier-rocket used in its bid to put a satellite in space closely approximates the Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile.
(The last “satellite” launch, in 2009, failed although the rocket travelled some 2,000 miles in a flight lasting about 18 minutes, according to Japanese officials. As such it marked a significant advance on North Korea’s first Taepodong-2 test, in 2006, which failed after just 42 seconds.)
UNSC resolutions 1718 and 1874 both included language reflecting these concerns, calling on North Korea to halt “all activities related to its ballistic missile program” and not to conduct “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”
The U.S. and its allies argue that the North Korean launches violate UNSC resolutions, whether the rocket carries a satellite or not.
When Iran in early 2009 shot a communications satellite into space – becoming just the 10th country with the proven ability to do so – the achievement was widely viewed as further evidence of Tehran’s rapidly-developing ballistic missile capability, and prompted fresh calls for the U.S. to speed up missile defense plans in Europe.
Citing both the missile launch and nuclear test preparations, Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance chairman Riki Ellison called the North Korean activities “a demonstration of failed United States diplomacy.”
“With a successful long range ballistic missile, a nuclear North Korea means to expand their power beyond their immediate region of influence and seek to have a capability to directly threaten the United States,” he wrote in an alert.
“There is no doubt that Iran and others are closely watching this demonstration of a rogue country that is much poorer, less developed, less educated than Iran and is not being denied nuclear weapon development and long-range ballistic missile weaponry.”
Ellison urged stepped-up development and deployment of missile defense systems to protect the U.S. against attacks from states like North Korea or Iran.
“What our nation has in place today with missile defense is not sufficient and must improve.”