April 09,2009

The Strategic Ambiguity of North Korea's "Satellite" Launch

By Shen Dingli
In spite of the advance protests of several of its neighbors and critics, North Korea (DPRK) launched a rocket toward space on April 5.  Pyongyang acclaimed the successful launch of a satellite, though those tracking the launch say it failed to reach orbit and plunged miserably into the Pacific. But the DPRK continues to insist on its right to tap space for peace.
 
The launch was observed by many, but there was disagreement on the nature of the projectile.  In Prague, President Obama condemned the launch as provocative. In a speech the same day on the US commitment to a nuclear weapons-free world, he said the rocket the DPRK launched could be used as a long range ballistic missile. At the same time, space veterans spoke dismissively of the effort as they concluded that DPRK failed to send anything to earth orbit. To attain that, the third stage of the rocket must reach a speed of 7.9 km/second, the so-called first cosmic speed, and theirs obviously didn’t.
 
Presently, the UN Security Council is deliberating on how to deal with this challenge.  The United States says that even the launch of satellite would constitute a violation of UNSC Resolution 1718 that prohibits any further nuclear weapons or ballistic missile testing.
 
The questions then are: 1) whether DPRK’s launch is of the nature of satellite or ballistic missile; and 2) under the sanction regime, whether any launch would truly violate the UN rule.
 
Present international law does permit exploration of space for peaceful purpose. This extends to shooting satellites to outer space for such missions. Indeed there are countless satellites launched by several nations in the space for civilian telecommunication, weather observation, disaster control, observing various celestial phenomena, and etc. So far, not many countries have independently acquired satellite launch technology. Pyongyang’s space capability and national pride would be much boosted if they could join the club.
 
One can also make a point that there are at least as many military satellites that don’t serve civilian purposes as civilian satellites, but there exists no pre-launch verification regime that can assure us all payloads on board are not military.
 
One could go further by arguing that a military payload could still be peacefully intended.  Hence the definition of peaceful use of outer space can be quite different from non-weaponization of outer space ?an area where China and Russia differ much with America.
 
Nevertheless, a ballistic missile launch is absolutely different from a satellite launch.  To successfully launch a satellite, the rocket has to accelerate to first cosmic speed.  The payload has to be intended not to reenter the atmosphere quickly, and not to reenter to do harm.  In comparison, a missile is designed to reenter the earth’s atmosphere, to be guided with great precision during reentry stage, and to explode its payload against a specific adversary.
 
The DPRK is not permitted to test ballistic missiles under the sanctions, but what about launching a satellite?  This certainly has not been stated clearly in any previous UNSC resolutions sanctioning Pyongyang.
 
It is noted that there are strong similarities between the rocket technologies for satellite and missiles, as both are used for lifting a projectile into space.  A rocket for a satellite would certainly provide sufficient range for a warhead payload when the system is intended as a missile.  In this spirit, the DPRK’s launch project is highly imprudent, to say at least.
 
But to punish Pyongyang simply because it has shot a projectile which could possibly be a satellite is not sufficiently warranted.
 
First, the international community has never made it clear that any dual-use technology or components of a ballistic missile may not be tested under UNSCR 1718.  To devise an impromptu tough interpretation of the law would fail to convince, and consequently be ineffective.
 
Second, despite the test, it is still not too late to pass a new Security Council resolution prohibiting the DPRK from conducting any future satellite launch. Even though it would be nearly impossible for the Security Council to reach such a rigorous consensus, it is possible that the Council could express its serious concern and urge, rather than ask/demand, North Korea not to conduct any new tests.
 
Third, there are ample precedents of other nations who have openly broken international laws and gone unpunished. The US preemptive strike against Iraq in 2003 is a recent reminder. With this in mind, any attempted UNSC punitive action against DPRK’s satellite launch would be difficult to justify and would lack credibility.
 
In the end, let’s see what the payload really was this time. There are two possibilities, a real satellite that would emit and communicate, or a mimic warhead or anything that is not a satellite.
 
In the first case, Pyongyang would have wanted a success as both a boost of its strength and as a prod at the Obama administration.  In the latter case, the DPRK likely never wanted the success of reaching orbit so much as it wanted to test the extended range of its missile, so the rocket was designed not to take the payload to earth orbit at all. Unfortunately, as the rocket is now sitting deep at the bottom of the West Pacific, there is almost no chance to verify what the payload was and what Pyongyang’s true intentions were.

 

 

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