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June 1, 2018
N. Korean Launch Plan Puts Deal at Risk

Peter Crail

North Korea announced on March 16 that it will launch a satellite in mid-April, a move that threatens to unravel a Feb. 29 agreement the country made with the United States to halt key nuclear and missile activities. North Korea says it is carrying out the launch between April 12 and 16 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters March 16 that the North’s announcement calls into question Pyongyang’s good faith in committing to the agreement. Nuland said that, in its negotiations with North Korea over the so-called Leap Day agreement, the United States “made clear unequivocally that any satellite launch would be a deal-breaker.”

Under the agreement, the North pledged not to carry out nuclear or long-range missile tests and to suspend its operations at a uranium-enrichment facility “while constructive dialogue continued.” (See ACT, March 2012.)

In return for North Korea’s recent pledges, the United States agreed to provide the impoverished country with 240,000 tons of food aid under “intensive monitoring.”

Although the United States maintains that food assistance is based on “humanitarian need” and is not linked to political issues such as North Korea’s nuclear program, Nuland said that the assistance would be reconsidered in the event of a rocket launch.

“A launch of this kind, which would abrogate our agreement, would call into question the credibility of all the commitments that we’ve had with regard to the nutritional assistance,” she said, including Pyongyang’s commitment to allow international monitoring of food distribution to prevent the food from being diverted to the military or North Korean elites.

Pyongyang claims that the satellite launch would not violate the agreement, which it says it will uphold. “[T]he launch of the working satellite is an issue fundamentally different from that of a long-range missile,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said March 19. Also on March 19, North Korean nuclear negotiator Ri Yong Ho told reporters in Beijing that, in order to implement the Leap Day agreement, North Korea invited International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to monitor the suspension of operations at its Yongbyon uranium-enrichment facility.

In a March 19 statement to reporters, IAEA spokeswoman Gill Tudor said that the agency received the invitation March 16, the same day Pyongyang announced the satellite launch, and that the IAEA will discuss the details of any visit with North Korea “and other parties concerned.”

Missile Test Feared

The United States and its allies view a North Korean satellite launch as a way for the country to test its ballistic missile technology, which overlaps in many areas with that of space-launch vehicles. The Unha-2 rocket North Korea launched in April 2009 in a failed attempt to put a satellite in orbit uses a cluster of four Nodong medium-range missiles for its first stage and is believed to be a version of the Taepo Dong-2 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (See ACT, May 2009.) The UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the Unha-2 launch later that month and, in a June 2009 sanctions resolution, demanded that North Korea not conduct “any launch using ballistic missile technology.”

North Korea says that this month’s launch will use a rocket called the Unha-3. It is unknown whether the system has any significant differences from the Unha-2.

Pyongyang has rejected the council’s demand not to carry out launches using ballistic missile technology and responded to the council’s April 2009 condemnation of the Unha-2 launch by conducting the country’s second nuclear test the following month. (See ACT, June 2009.) Former U.S. officials said they were concerned that North Korea would similarly follow any international rebuke of the Unha-3 launch with another nuclear test.

Launch Planned for Months

The announced launch does not appear to have come entirely by surprise. Evans Revere, former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in a March 20 briefing paper for the Brookings Institution that a North Korean official told him Dec. 15 that Pyongyang intended to launch a satellite in the near future.

“The official spoke at length about [North Korea’s] ‘sovereign right’ to conduct such launches and warned that any U.S. effort to interfere with or oppose this plan would make [North Korea] even more determined to carry it out,” added Revere, who is now a senior director with the Albright Stonebridge Group.

He also said that Pyongyang likely made the decision to carry out the launch under the leadership of long-time North Korea ruler Kim Jong Il, who died Dec. 17, leaving his third-eldest son, Kim Jong Un, to lead the country.

Other former U.S. officials say that North Korean negotiators were aware that the United States viewed a satellite launch as a deal-breaker and still agreed to the moratorium Feb. 29, suggesting the mixed messages from the North’s actions point to policy splits under the country’s new leader.

Former U.S. envoy to North Korea Charles “Jack” Pritchard, now president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said in a March 19 interview that Pyongyang’s decision to carry out a launch that undermines its recent agreement “suggests that this will be an internal crisis that will develop into an external crisis for the North.”

New Launch Facility

The satellite launch will be the first using a new facility, called the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which is larger than the launch site North Korea has previously used at Musudan-ri. The larger site is believed to allow the North to launch larger rockets and carry out launches more frequently.

The Sohae facility is on the country’s western coast, allowing the North to launch its rockets in a southern direction that avoids travel over Japan. North Korea’s 1998 and 2009 launches both overflew Japan, leading to Japanese concerns about the North’s intentions and the risks of falling debris.

Prior to the April 2009 satellite launch, Japan said it would deploy short-range anti-missile batteries and potentially shoot down any rocket components that might threaten the country’s territory.