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North Korea’s Rocket Fails

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 16, 2012

    North Korea's recent unsuccessful attempt to launch a satellite demonstrates that it still has a long way to go before mastering long-range ballistic missile technology. It is a known fact that for the last few years North Korea has been using space launches to actually demonstrate its missile capabilities. Interestingly, this issue of satellite launches with various covert agenda and their politico-strategic implications have been debated for many years. In fact, it had all started with the launch of the very first artificial satellite.

    It would be difficult to say with certitude that the first satellite ever launched, the Sputnik, and the first human visit to space, Yuri Gagarin, (both by the former Soviet Union) had only a scientific agenda. Probably, because of the then prevailing politico-strategic equation, such a major technological achievement was also feared for its potential military applications. These events which were not anticipated by the US intelligence agencies came as a rude shock for the US. Paul Dickson called Sputnik “The Shock of the Century” (his book with the same title was published by Walker & Company in 2007).

    Sputnik was not only about the starting of the space race between the two superpowers. In fact, its launch and Gagarin’s space visit could be viewed as the ‘seeds’ for inducing the US thrust to make substantial investments in the technology domain in general and space and military technologies in particular. The subject of space technology has dominated US politics since then. In the first televised presidential debates in history in 1960 (between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon), Kennedy highlighted the importance of space by calling it a "New frontier"1 and argued for the need to develop new technologies and make advancements in space exploration. Even today, the issue of space is being discussed during the 2012 debates amongst the Republican White House hopefuls.

    Space issues have not only been a matter of domestic debate within the US but the US has also used space technology as an instrument to carry forward its foreign policy agenda. One interesting case was US sanctioning of the Indian and Russian space agencies in the 1990s because the latter had concluded a sale as well as technology transfer agreement on cryogenic engines, which was seen as violating the stipulations of the Missile Technology Control Regime. Consequently, the Indian space programme suffered and is yet to indigenise cryogenic technology.

    Underscoring such historic realities is important to analyse the much debated but failed rocket test launch by North Korea. In order to mark the birth centennial of the country's founding father, Kim Il-sung, North Korea had announced plans for launching an earth observation satellite in mid-April 2012. Surprisingly, this country, famous for its policies of secrecy, for the first time invited the international media to cover the launch. This probably was the result of widespread global criticism that North Korea is actually planning a missile test under the garb of a satellite launch. North Korea wanted to demonstrate ‘transparency’. Over the years North Korea has used missile technology for the purposes of economic and strategic gains. It has sold this technology to some states and has also helped states like Iran develop their long-range missiles. There have been reports of North Korea selling missiles to Iran, Syria and Pakistan.

    On Friday, 13 April 2012, the launch of North Korea's rocket Unha-3 (Galaxy-3) ended in a discomforting failure. This was shocking news for a state which had advertised the launch with the intention of demonstrating its technological achievements. The state has officially announced the failure of the mission by stating that the satellite had failed to enter orbit. The satellite in question was Kwangmyongsong-3 and it was meant to study crops and weather patterns. This was the third unsuccessful attempt of North Korea to launch a satellite since 1998.

    In order to cater for any portion of the rocket falling on their soil in case the launch failed, states like Japan and South Korea had deployed their missile defence systems. Luckily, as per reports, the debris of the rocket fell into the high seas. Many countries around the world including Russia have denounced the launch. They all are of the opinion that it was actually a masked missile test. The UN also had opposed this launch. After North Korea’s failed satellite launch and missiles tests during 2009, the UN had adopted UNSC resolution 1874,2 which prohibits North Korea from conducing any further nuclear test or any
    launch using ballistic missile technology.

    The global community has called North Korea’s act as ‘provocative’ and the US has suspended the agreed upon food aid (240,000 tonnes). However, the failed launch offers an opportunity to initiate fresh attempts to diplomatically engage North Korea. The six–party talks (which include China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia) to address issues related to the North Korean nuclear programme have failed to yield any significant results since they began in 2003. In fact, North Korea had quit these talks in 2009. But now with a young leadership in place in Pyongyang, there is a new hope. During February 2012, the US actually managed to convince North Korea to suspend further nuclear testing and agree to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to monitor its uranium enrichment activities in exchange for food aid.

    There is a fear that out of frustration borne from this failure and to demonstrate its technological capability, North Korea could attempt a nuclear test. The international community therefore needs to react quickly. It needs to be understood that UN sanctions have limited impact and imposing further sanctions on North Korea may not help. It is important for the US to convert North Korean’s rocket failure into an opportunity for engagement. Today, this failure is not just a technical failure but more a loss of international prestige which North Korea and its new leadership were planning to ‘achieve’ via this launch. In fact, even on the domestic front the new leader could have consolidated his leadership by showcasing a successful satellite launch. Now, without getting into any further debate about whether this launch was a missile test or a satellite, the US should make an offer to help North Korea launch a satellite. Such an offer could help to reduce tensions in the region. Simultaneously, the proposed food aid need not be stopped. It is important to understand that North Korea, in spite of facing significant challenges with regard to feeding its population, is still investing on military hardware. Such investments and attempts to display nuclear power indirectly indicate that the state is ‘starving’ for ‘prestige’. There is a need to exploit this sentiment and the best way to do it is to use the ‘carrot’ of satellite technology.

    The US could opt for multiple options in order to use space technology as a tool for diplomacy. The best option could be engaging China and/or Russia for such purposes. India too could be roped into this effort. The engagement should not be one event specific like helping to launch a North Korean satellite on a Chinese or an Indian booster. An offer could be made to improve the communication technology in North Korea by providing satellite communication technologies. China or Russia could also encourage North Korea to send its first astronaut into space as part of their future human space missions. Such investments may not offer immediate benefits but would foster a sustained engagement with the North Korean regime.

    For almost more than a decade it has been observed that North Korea is trying to make inroads into space but without any success. Hence, it is important to connect with North Korea by offering help in this field which it is keen to master. Particularly for the US it is important to realise that all these years it has used space technology selectively as an instrument to deny benefits to other states or coerce them. North Korea provides it an opportunity to use space technology for the purpose of diplomacy and engagement.