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North Korea in International Limelight over its Space Development Programme

Pranamita Baruah is Research Assistant at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
Rajaram Panda was Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • April 02, 2009

    North East Asia’s fragile peace is being threatened by North Korea’s planned launch between 4 and 8 April over Japanese territory of a communication satellite. The US and its allies suspect the planned satellite launch to be a long-range ballistic missile test. The prevailing uneasy peace is accentuated by the fact that both a ballistic missile and a satellite launcher operate on very similar technology. According to Dennis Blair, Director of US National Intelligence, the technology for a space launch “is indistinguishable from an intercontinental ballistic missile.” If the “three stage space-launch vehicle works,” it could technically reach the US mainland. Consequently, the reactions from the US and its allies have been strong.

    There has remained a lurking suspicion that North Korea and Iran have joined together to build missiles. That Iran has made rapid strides in missile technology is an established fact. But whether the collaboration between the two countries includes warheads or other nuclear work remains shrouded in mystery. But given the behaviour of the two countries over the years, it is difficult to disbelieve that both Iran and North Korea are not cooperating in such activity.

    North Korea already possesses the Taepo Dong-2 with ICBM potential (striking range of 5500 kilometres or greater). It may be recalled that Pyongyang’s August 1998 test firing of a Taepo Dong-2 into the Sea of Japan had panicked American friends and allies in East Asia. It is a different matter that the test failed 40 seconds into its launch. However, it propelled North Korean engineers to make substantial modifications in the missile’s design. The advanced version of Taepo Dong-2 is supposed to have a minimum striking range of 6,700 kilometres (4100 miles), capable of striking the US west coast.

    Despite its precarious economic problems, Pyongyang has never felt shy of demonstrating its defence capabilities by upgrading its missile development systems continuously. It has built a ballistic missile arsenal capable of hitting not only Japan and South Korea but also the west coast of the US. In total, North Korea deploys around 750 ballistic missiles, including between 600-800 SCUDs, 150-200 No Dongs, 10-20 Taepo Dong-1, and a few Taepo Dong-2s.

    Pyongyang has not halted its nuclear programme despite the denuclearisation deal that it struck at the Six Party talks in February 2007. It is suspected that Pyongyang is aiming to produce nuclear payloads for its ballistic missiles. It is also feared that Pyongyang’s missile development programme is projected towards developing a nuclear warhead sophisticated enough for delivery aboard a space-bound rocket. In the event of Pyongyang achieving that capability, it would be in a position to detonate a nuclear warhead in space. The electromagnetic pulse (EMP) emanating from such a detonation would have frightening repercussions, especially for unhardened satellites. A space launch would advance Pyongyang’s missile programme, enabling it to produce more accurate and powerful ballistic missiles capable of terrorizing not only Seoul and Tokyo but also Los Angeles and San Francisco.

    With a view to deterring and intercepting missiles from the North, South Korea has announced its own plans to complete a missile defence system by 2012. Japan too has affirmed its commitment to acquire a multi-layered system after the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) in 2002 and North Korea left the NPT regime in 2003. If North Korea does not retract from its ballistic missiles test programme, the US, Japan and South Korea are likely to keep their missile defence options open.

    There already exist the necessary mechanisms through international legal instruments to deter North Korea from upgrading its missile development capability. United Nations Security Council resolution 1718 (2006) prohibits Pyongyang from conducting any ballistic missile activity. North Korea is a signatory to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit, in the moon or elsewhere in space. However, it has asserted its right to engage in a peaceful space programme. The state-run Korean Central New Agency said “preparations for launching experimental communications satellite Kwangmyongsong-2 by means of delivery rocket Unha-2 are now making brisk headway” at a launch site in Hwadae Country in the northeast. The statement called the upcoming launch “a giant stride forward” for the country’s space programme.

    North Korea finds fault with the US and Japan, claiming that these two countries have already launched their own satellites and therefore have no moral right to prevent it from doing the same. It further warns Washington and Tokyo that if they deny Pyongyang the right to use space for peaceful purposes, it would not only be discriminatory but also not in keeping with ‘spirit of mutual respect and equality’ of the 2005 disarmament pact. Pyongyang further warns that any sanctions that the UN, US and its allies might impose on it would “deprive the Six-Party talks of any ground to exist or their meaning.” Meanwhile, North Korea has asserted that it would regard any attempt to shoot down its rocket as an unprovoked Act of War and retaliate with prompt strikes on the US mainland, Japan and South Korea.

    The international community is aghast at Pyongyang’s obduracy. Japan has decided to call for an emergency meeting of the UNSC if the launch takes place. In the event of the North’s missile firing, Japan will urge the UNSC to take immediate action regardless of how other UN members would react, as it would be directly exposed to an immediate missile threat. Japan has warned that it will shoot down a missile or any debris if it threatens to hit Japanese territory.

    Japan debated between two possible options in response to a missile launch by North Korea: to ask the cabinet to take an instant decision after a missile launch or to give military approval in advance to shoot it down, and finally decided to exercise the second option by issuing an advanced order to the Self Defence Forces on March 27 to use the Patriot missile defence system to destroy any missile or debris that shows signs of falling toward Japan. Japan, however, does not want to strike a North Korean rocket unless it appears to pose a direct threat, in the event of a mishap that could send an errant missile or debris flying toward the country.

    Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso has already obtained the support of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Both Japan and Britain have agreed to take the issue to the UNSC to discuss possible punitive action if Pyongyang goes ahead with the launch. As a pre-emptive measure, Japan has deployed three Aegis destroyers, two of which are fitted with anti-missile missiles, around Japan and Patriot guided-missile units at select locations in Japan. The US Seventh Fleet has been deployed around Japan. US cruisers and destroyers based at Yokosuka also reportedly have the capability to launch guided missiles against ballistic missiles. Five Aegis destroyers of the US Navy modified for ballistic missile defence have already left Yokosuka and other Japanese ports on March 30. They are expected to detect and track the North Korean rocket passing over northeastern Japan if the launch goes according to plan.

    South Korea is worried over the heightened tensions on the Peninsula and President Lee Dang-hee has appealed for restraint. Seoul has also alleged that Pyongyang’s long-range rocket launch clearly violates UNSC resolution 1718. It has described Pyongyang’s planned rocket launch as a ‘serious challenge and provocation’ to regional security. North Korea, however, has ramped up its anti-Lee rhetoric, warning that the Koreas are headed for a military clash.

    Russia too has joined the chorus of nations expressing concern over the upcoming launch. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin said that the launch would lead to increased tensions in the region and urged Pyongyang to refrain from it. As regards China, a traditional ally and a major donor for impoverished North Korea and UNSC permanent member, it has not publicly urged Pyongyang to halt the launch. However, both China and Russia have notified the Obama administration that North Korea has a legitimate right to launch a satellite. The perceived tacit support from China and Russia might embolden North Korea not to rethink its planned space satellite launch.

    It appears that the uneasy peace in the North East Asian region stemming from Pyongyang’s intransigence is likely to continue for some more time to come. If North Korea is to be trusted about its intentions for the communication satellite launch programme, it would serve the interests of the country. If, however, Pyongyang has other covert intentions, it will have to face the reactions from its neighbours and the US.