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Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
N. Korea Launches Rocket, Renounces Talks
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Peter Crail

North Korea's long anticipated rocket launch April 5 set off a chain of events resulting in international sanctions on North Korean firms and Pyongyang's withdrawal from six-way talks to end its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea, which warned that any UN response would provoke a hostile reaction, insisted that it is no longer bound by multilateral agreements reached with the United States and countries in the region and stated its intention to reconstitute the nuclear facilities that it temporarily disabled under those accords. In an April 25 Foreign Ministry statement, Pyongyang declared that it had begun separating plutonium to enhance its "nuclear deterrence."

Rocket Launch

More than a month after indicating that it would attempt to launch a satellite into space, North Korea fired a three-stage rocket April 5, defying calls by the United States and countries in the region not to take such an action. Although Pyongyang declared the launch a success, other countries have concluded that the rocket did not place a satellite in space.

The U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) issued a statement April 5 explaining that the first stage landed in the Sea of Japan while "the remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean." NORTHCOM said that "no object entered orbit."

The rocket, which North Korea calls the Unha-2, is believed to be a modified version of the North's Taepo Dong-2 missile first tested in 2006. That test failed about 40 seconds after launch. The recent launch, in spite of its failure to orbit a satellite, therefore demonstrated some improvement of North Korea's proficiency with its longest-range missile system.

Independent estimates suggest that, in a ballistic missile configuration, the Taepo Dong-2 may be able to carry a 500-kilogram payload about 9,000 kilometers, making it capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii, and the western coast of the continental United States. The rocket's first stage is believed to be powered by a cluster of four Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles, offering considerable lift capacity. The makeup of its second and third stages is unclear.

Although the NORTHCOM statement referred to the rocket as a satellite launch vehicle, the United States and its allies said the rocket launch was intended to test North Korea's long-range ballistic missile technologies, which have many similarities with satellite launchers. (See ACT, April 2009.) Additional modifications are needed for the rocket to serve as a nuclear-weapon delivery vehicle.

In March, Pyongyang provided international agencies with information on where the rocket's first two stages were expected to land in the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean. The first stage landed in the expected location while the second reportedly landed hundreds of kilometers short of the area in which North Korea estimated it would land, about 3,150-3,950 kilometers from the launch site.

Security Council Condemnation, Sanctions

The UN Security Council responded to the launch by issuing a presidential statement April 13 condemning it and declaring that it was "in contravention of Security Council Resolution 1718." The council also imposed sanctions on three North Korean firms believed to be involved in Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs. Presidential statements by the council are issued with the approval of all 15 members but do not have the same legal force that resolutions do.

Although the statement fell short of a new resolution sought by the United States and Japan, those countries did appear to win concessions from China and Russia to declare that the launch contravened Resolution 1718 and to levy sanctions under that resolution.

The council adopted Resolution 1718 in October 2006 in response to North Korea's nuclear test earlier that month. (See ACT, November 2006.) It prohibited Pyongyang from engaging in "any ballistic missile activity" and required that all countries freeze the assets of designated North Korean entities believed to be involved in that country's nuclear and missile programs. Prior to April, the council had not designated any entities.

China and Russia previously maintained that because the Unha-2 was intended to orbit a satellite, the launch was not prohibited by Resolution 1718. The United States and Japan argued that the resolution barred all activities with ballistic missile applications. (See ACT, April 2009.) To prevent any continued legal dispute, the April 13 statement demanded that North Korea "not conduct any further launch."

Beijing and Moscow had also warned against taking any steps, such as new sanctions, that would jeopardize negotiations with North Korea on its nuclear program.

Following the launch, Russia's permanent representative to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told reporters that it was important "not to give in to emotions" and lose sight of the "main goal...the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

After the UN statement, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters in Seoul April 24 that Moscow stood behind the council's decision to penalize North Korea for the rocket launch. During an April 23 visit to Pyongyang, Lavrov told North Korean officials that Russia would be willing to launch their satellites.

The United States and Japan were also able to win agreement to sanction North Korean entities under Resolution 1718, though not as many as they had wanted. On April 24, the council agreed to place financial restrictions on three North Korean firms: Korea Mining Development Trading Corp., Tanchon Commercial Bank, and Korea Ryongbong General Corp.

Reuters reported April 21 and Arms Control Today confirmed with diplomatic sources that the United States sought to sanction 11 firms, while Japan proposed that the council list those 11 entities plus an additional three.

The U.S. Department of the Treasury has placed financial restrictions on 10 North Korean firms suspected of involvement in the country's nuclear and missile programs, including the three firms now designated by the council.

In addition to seeking UN penalties, Japan extended its own sanctions against North Korea April 10, including an embargo on North Korean imports and limitations on exports and remittances to the isolated state. Moreover, in contrast to its usual practice of extending the sanctions for six months, Tokyo imposed them for an additional year. The sanctions have been in place since 2006.

Hours after the council adopted its statement, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a declaration "resolutely" rejecting the UN action and outlining steps that Pyongyang would take in response. In the April declaration, North Korea argued that "there has never been a case in history that the [council] took issue with a satellite launch."

Nuclear Talks Denounced

Alleging that the other participants in the six-party talks on denuclearizing the Korean peninsula had infringed on North Korea's sovereignty by issuing the council statement, Pyongyang declared that it "will never participate in such talks and will no longer be bound" by any of its agreements.

South Korea and current Security Council members China, Japan, Russia, and the United States have been the participants in the talks with North Korea.

The six countries have reached three formal agreements since the talks were initiated in August 2003 in response to Pyongyang's withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) earlier that year. In a 2005 joint statement, the parties concluded a key overarching agreement outlining the goal of the negotiations. In that agreement, North Korea pledged to abandon "all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs" and to return "at an early date" to the NPT.

Two subsequent agreements reached in February and October 2007 detailed initial steps to implement the 2005 statement, including temporarily rendering North Korea's key plutonium-related facilities temporarily inoperable. The process, which requires reciprocal steps by North Korea and the other five countries, has not been completed.

In spite of Pyongyang's withdrawal from the negotiations, other participants have insisted that the six-party talks continue.

Department of State spokesperson Megan Mattson told reporters April 25, "The United States remains committed to the six-party goal of the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner through the six-party talks."

Lavrov similarly stated during an April 24 press conference that "our joint task is to create conditions towards the resumption of the negotiating process" with North Korea. He had traveled to Pyongyang one day earlier to discuss the talks with key members of the North Korean leadership. Based on those meetings, Lavrov said at the press conference, "today, North Korea is not ready to return to the negotiating table."

In its April 14 statement, North Korea said it would reverse the steps taken under the 2007 agreements to disable its nuclear facilities, "putting their operation on a normal track." On April 16, Pyongyang ejected international and U.S. monitors from its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

Escalating the situation further, Pyongyang also declared that it would "fully reprocess" the spent fuel rods from its Yongbyon reactor in order to extract plutonium for nuclear weapons. The 8,000 spent fuel rods from the reactor contain about 7-10 kilograms of plutonium, enough for one or two nuclear weapons. (See ACT, October 2008.)

In an April 25 Foreign Ministry statement, North Korea said that it has already begun separating this plutonium. "The reprocessing of spent fuel rods from the pilot atomic power plant began as declared in the Foreign Ministry statement dated April 14," said a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, according to the North's official Korean Central News Agency.

The statement said the move "will contribute to bolstering the nuclear deterrence for self-defense in every way."

It is unclear whether the reprocessing facility has been restored to its normal working condition. Siegfried Hecker, former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, told Arms Control Today last September that it would only take "a month or so" to restart operations at that facility once the equipment was moved back into place. (See ACT, October 2008.) In the September interview, he said that "the reprocessing facility was the one that was disabled the least." The disablement work on the reprocessing facility focused on the "front-end" loading operations because the other portions of the facility contain high-level radioactive waste, Hecker noted.

South Korea Considers Full PSI Membership

Seoul is mulling its own response to the Taepo Dong-2 launch. South Korea indicated prior to the launch that it would consider formally joining the U.S.-initiated Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) if North Korea went ahead with the action. (See ACT, April 2009.) Although Seoul appears to be in favor of joining the effort, reported divisions in the South Korean government seem to have delayed any final decision.

The Korea Herald reported April 23 that the delay is due in part to "competing foreign policy camps within government." The disagreement reportedly centers on concerns that North Korea may stoke a conflict in response to a South Korean decision to join the PSI. Pyongyang has warned that Seoul's membership in the PSI would constitute an "act of war," a threat it has reiterated in recent weeks. A South Korean diplomat told Arms Control Today in April that Seoul has begun taking additional precautionary steps to protect its civilian ships from threats by North Korean vessels.

The United States established the PSI in 2003 as an informal grouping of states that pledged to share information on and interdict suspected shipments of unconventional weapons and related goods. (See ACT, September 2003.) That year, the first 11 key participants identified North Korea as one of the "states of particular concern" with respect to the goals of the initiative. Seoul is currently an observer to the effort, which now includes more than 90 participants.

South Korean presidential spokesperson Lee Dong-kwan said during an April 14 press conference that the government planned to announce its decision after a high-level security policy meeting the following day. After that meeting, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Moon Tae-young told reporters that although Seoul was committed to joining the initiative, it was postponing an announcement until the end of that week.

April 15, the date of the originally expected announcement, is also the date that North Korea celebrates the birthday of its founder, Kim Il Sung. As of April 24, South Korea had yet to make an announcement on the PSI.

Although it has not publicly disclosed its decision, South Korea does appear to have shared it with PSI members. The Korea Times quoted an unnamed Foreign Ministry official April 15 stating that Seoul "informed related countries of our plan to take part in the initiative," adding "we are also conducting internal procedures."