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– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
U.S., Allies Warn Against NK Space Launch
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Peter Crail

The United States, Japan, and South Korea warned North Korea in March that its intended satellite launch would violate a UN Security Council resolution prohibiting Pyongyang's missile activities, indicating that the council would consider the issue in the event of such a launch. North Korea maintains that the launch is only for civil space purposes and has provided information to UN agencies on the timing and route of its space launch vehicle.

The launch is expected to involve North Korea's most advanced rocket system, the Taepo Dong-2, which has an estimated range of 4,000-8,000 kilometers. Such a range could potentially allow North Korea to reach Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the western coast of the continental United States.

Pyongyang Makes Space Launch Preparations

Pyongyang reportedly began moving equipment in early February to its eastern launch facility at Musudan-ri in preparation for a long-range missile launch. (See ACT, March 2009.) North Korea officially announced Feb. 24 that it intended to launch a rocket to orbit a communications satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-2. Since then, Pyongyang has taken additional steps to suggest that the system it intends to launch is a satellite-launch vehicle.

On March 11, Pyongyang informed the International Maritime Organization and the International Civil Aviation Organization that the launch would take place April 4-8 and provided those agencies with information regarding expected "dangerous area coordinates" where two of the rocket's three stages are expected to fall to earth.

The information North Korea provided to the UN agencies indicates that the rocket launch is expected to fly over northern Japan. North Korea similarly fired its first alleged satellite launch vehicle, the Taepo Dong-1, over Japan in 1998, provoking a strong reaction from Tokyo. At that time, however, Pyongyang did not provide any prior notification of the launch, which failed to orbit that country's first satellite, the Kwangmyongsong-1.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also declared March 12 that Pyongyang acceded to two international instruments on the civilian use of outer space: the Outer Space Treaty and the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space. Diplomatic sources contacted by Arms Control Today in March indicated that North Korea only acceded to the latter and informed Russia, a depository for the Outer Space Treaty, that it was adhering to that accord.

Missile Suspicions

In spite of North Korean efforts to suggest that its rocket is only intended to launch a satellite, Washington and its allies are suspicious that the launch is cover for a long-range ballistic missile test.

Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair told the House Armed Services Committee March 10, that although he expects North Korea to carry out a space launch as intended, "the technology is indistinguishable" from an ICBM. Speaking to reporters March 4, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth went further, saying that Washington "doesn't see a distinction" between a satellite launch and a missile.

Seoul's assessment appeared to rule out any civilian rationale altogether. Describing the rocket to reporters March 12, South Korea's unification minister, Hyun In-taek, said, "[G]iven North Korea's security situation, it is likely a missile."

Indeed, many of the technologies involved in a space launch vehicle and an ICBM are the same, including the propulsion system and staging, the practice of placing multiple rocket engines on top of one another. In March 19 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command Gen. Kevin Chilton explained that the United States used its Atlas and Titan rockets both for ICBM and space launch roles.

Chilton noted, however, that "other elements that would have to be matured" before Pyongyang could launch an ICBM. He said such elements included weaponization and developing a re-entry vehicle that can survive such a long-range flight, "which is not a trivial thing."

Allies Mull Potential Responses

Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul have stated that any launch will violate UN Security Council resolutions requiring that North Korea abandon all ballistic missile activities, warning that they will seek action by the council in response to such a violation. Agence France-Presse reported March 19 that Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso told a parliamentary committee that Japan will call on the council to consider a response to the test "including the idea of strengthening sanctions." Japan currently holds a rotating seat on the 15-member body.

The Security Council adopted Resolution 1695 calling for North Korea to suspend its ballistic missile activities in July 2006 in response to North Korea's first Taepo Dong-2 test. Following North Korea's nuclear test three months later, it adopted Resolution 1718 demanding that North Korea abandon its nuclear and missile activities and levying a series of sanctions against Pyongyang.

Russia does not appear to share the interpretation that a satellite launch would constitute a violation of those resolutions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters March 2 that "[n]o one prohibits launching satellites, but a rocket that carries a satellite is another matter." He added, "[W]e must understand what kind of missile that is."

Referencing Lavrov's comments, a Russian diplomat said to Arms Control Today March 17 that the council resolutions do not prohibit a launch "if it is designed only for delivering an object into orbit."

Previously, however, the council has characterized a suspected satellite launch as a missile. In reference to the 1998 Taepo Dong-1 launch, Resolution 1695 described that supposed satellite launch vehicle as "an object propelled by a missile." Washington concluded in 1998 that North Korea did attempt to orbit a satellite at that time.

In addition to seeking a UN response, Washington and Tokyo have also indicated their readiness to shoot down any long-range North Korean missile in the event of such a launch.

Testifying with Chilton, Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said that the United States would "have a high probability" of intercepting a North Korean ICBM with the U.S. missile defense system.

Keating's assessment appeared to conflict with that of a December 2008 annual report by the Pentagon's Operational Test and Evaluation Directorate. That report indicated that "while [the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense] GMD has demonstrated a capability against a simple foreign threat, GMD flight testing to date will not support a high level of confidence in its limited capabilities." (See ACT, March 2009.)

The GMD consists of interceptor missiles based in Alaska and California, which are intended to defend the United States against ICBMs.

In a March 9 KCNA report, Pyongyang warned that any intercept of its alleged satellite rocket would constitute an act of war.

Although the flight path indicated by North Korea suggests that the rocket will fly over Japan, Tokyo has warned that it would attempt to intercept anything that may threaten Japanese territory.

Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada said during a March 19 press conference that Tokyo was considering deploying some of its six Patriot-3 anti-missile batteries to northern Japan, where the North Korean rocket is expected to fly over.

Laying the groundwork for such a move, Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura told reporters March 13 that "Japan is legally able to shoot down the object to secure safety if it looks like it will fall onto Japan."

South Korean officials have also discussed potential responses to the rocket launch, including the possibility of full membership in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan told reporters March 13 that because the PSI "is aimed at containing weapons of mass destruction...the launch may raise the need to review full membership."

Seoul is currently an observer to the informal initiative aimed at sharing information on and interdicting illicit shipments of nonconventional weapons and delivery systems. In spite of U.S. pressure, South Korea has declined becoming a full participant due to concerns that PSI activities would undermine progress in multilateral negotiations on North Korea's denuclearization.