Corrected online May 8, 2012.
Defying international warnings, North Korea on April 13 fired a three-stage Unha-3 rocket with the aim of launching a satellite into orbit. The rocket failed and exploded into about 20 pieces over the West Sea (Yellow Sea) between the Korean peninsula and China, according to South Korean military officials. The launch, in effect, shattered a Feb. 29 deal made with the United States on halting all missile and nuclear activities.
It was Pyongyang’s fourth failed attempt to test its long-range ballistic technology and its third failed satellite launch since 1998. In contrast to the two previous satellite launches, the North admitted to the Unha-3’s failure despite a publicity campaign that included inviting journalists to view the rocket and satellite.
The Unha-3’s first explosion came in the first one to two minutes of takeoff, and the second came after about eight minutes, according to South Korean military officials, leading analysts to believe the rocket’s failure occurred in its first stage. This is a setback from its third-stage malfunction in 2009, although technical experts say failures are common in rocket and missile development.
The North’s repeated failures suggest it is still a long way from fielding a long-range missile capable of reaching the United States, easing fears of this possible threat.
Two days after the launch, Pyongyang rolled out what appeared to be new missiles in its military parade celebrating the 100th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the regime’s late founder. Some news reports initially speculated they were mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), recalling comments last June by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about a potential road-mobile ICBM. Specialists on North Korean missiles, however, have dismissed them as mock-ups.
Attention quickly shifted to the vehicles carrying the missiles, amid suspicions that they came from China, North Korea’s main patron. If the suspicions prove to be true, China, a UN Security Council member, could be violating council resolutions it helped pass that ban transfers to North Korea of “resources that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities.” According to Japanese media on April 26, a Chinese firm sold eight such vehicles to the North last May.
When asked about potential Chinese assistance to North Korea’s missile program during an April 19 House Armed Services Committee hearing, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “I’m sure there’s been some help coming from China,” adding that he did not know the extent of such aid.
Immediately after the North’s rocket launch, Washington halted its plans to ship 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance to the impoverished country. The aid was part of the February deal.
UN Security Council Resolution 1874, supported by China and Russia after Pyongyang’s 2009 rocket and nuclear tests, “demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology.” This means any long-range rocket and satellite launch would be considered a ballistic missile test. In Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, the council “decide[d] that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile program…[and] abandon all other existing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programme[s] in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner.” The council’s unanimous decision to use the terms “any launch using ballistic missile technology” indicated a consensus, which still exists, that an attempt to launch a satellite into orbit is part of an effort to mount a nuclear warhead on a missile.
U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies is said to have clearly reminded his North Korean counterpart, Kim Gye Gwan, of the meaning of this provision during February talks. Sources say, however, the young Kim Jong Un, the country’s new leader, was unable to defy his late father and predecessor’s command to complete the rocket launch, which was timed to mark the Kim Il Sung centennial and proclaim North Korea to be a “strong and prosperous nation.”
Security Council Condemnation
On April 16, the Security Council released a president’s statement, which requires unanimous support, strongly condemning the launch and directing fresh sanctions against North Korean entities and individuals.
The statement was the strongest of its kind, using sharper language than the one adopted after Pyongyang’s April 2009 rocket launch. The language changed from “condemns” in 2009 to “strongly condemns” in 2012, and its description of the act hardened from a “contravention” to a “serious violation” of past resolutions. In the latest president’s statement, the council also “deplore[d] that such a launch has caused grave security concerns in the region.”
A key element of the Security Council statement is the use of a “trigger” clause, in which the council “expresses its determination to take action accordingly in the event of a further DPRK launch or nuclear test.” Although a Security Council statement is not legally binding, the provision lays the groundwork for a swift sanctions resolution in the event of a future nuclear or missile test.
The inclusion of the trigger clause is also significant in that Beijing has not blocked it, which may reflect Chinese disappointment after failed attempts in 2006 and 2009 to dissuade North Korea from launching missiles.
In stark contrast to 2009, however, this year’s Security Council statement does not call for the early resumption of the six-party talks or even mention that process, in an apparent reflection of Washington’s hardened stance. China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States are involved in those talks.
The council’s statement came just three days after the North’s launch, a job that required eight days in 2009. The quicker response suggests less time for the council to overcome Chinese opposition.
At the same time, however, Beijing may not easily abandon Pyongyang’s strategic value. Although the essence of Chinese-North Korean ties is likely to remain unchanged, some experts say there may be some changes in the way they are maintained, particularly in dealing with a young, new leader after the death of Kim Jong Il.
Beijing’s support for tough Security Council action was followed by its own Foreign Ministry statement calling for dialogue and the implementation of the Feb. 29 agreement between Washington and Pyongyang.
In a North Korean Foreign Ministry statement carried by the country’s state media, Pyongyang rejected the Security Council’s condemnation as “unreasonable” and reasserted its right to a “peaceful” civilian space program. Accusing the United States of leading a campaign to deny it that right, Pyongyang pledged to continue with space launches and vowed to abandon the February agreement.
“We have thus become able to take necessary retaliatory measures, free from the agreement,” the statement said. “The U.S. will be held wholly accountable for all the ensuing consequences.”
Tougher Stances, New Approach?
Previous North Korean provocations led to a flurry of diplomacy to resume talks. This time, Washington does not seem eager to return to negotiations. Instead, North Korea’s rocket launch seems to have triggered a different approach in the way the United States and South Korea deal with Pyongyang. Instead of initiating more talks with the regime and trying to prevent its every move in its nuclear and missile game, the two allies are aiming at Pyongyang’s human rights violations and the livelihoods of the North Korean people.
“North Korea is only further isolating itself by engaging in provocative acts, and is wasting its money on weapons and propaganda displays while the North Korean people go hungry,” according to a White House statement released shortly after the North’s rocket launch.
“The cost of firing one missile is equivalent to six years’ worth of much-needed food and enough money to buy 2.5 million tons of corn,” said South Korean President Lee Myung-bak in an April 16 radio address. South Korean intelligence estimates that the Unha-3 rocket show cost $850 million.
The statements may represent a shift in approach because they strike at a fundamental element of the North Korean regime, sources said.
Washington has made it clear that there will not be any more dialogue but more pressure if North Korea continues with provocations, and the Department of State says Washington is considering its own sanctions in addition to the ones directed under the latest Security Council president’s statement. “We will continue to keep the pressure on them and they’ll continue to isolate themselves until they take a different path,” President Barack Obama said in an April 13 interview with Telemundo.
It seems clear Washington no longer will initiate dialogue with Pyongyang. It remains to be seen if Beijing or Moscow will attempt to arrange a future meeting. In the United States, advocates of engagement are hardening their positions. “Nuclear diplomacy with North Korea is at a dead end. Containing Pyongyang is Washington’s only realistic option,” Leon Sigal, director of the Northeast Asia Cooperative Security Project at the Social Science Research Council in New York, wrote in The National Interest on April 19.
The biggest variable in the new paradigm is a third nuclear test or successful long-range missile launch. Either of those can be expected to lead to significant changes in policy toward North Korea.
Tensions have spiked on the peninsula with continued threats by the North against the South. On April 23, North Korea’s military warned of a “nationwide sacred war” to wipe out South Korea for insulting its new leader’s dignity. It threatened to take “special actions soon” through “unprecedented means and methods of [their] own style.” The regime renewed its threats on April 26, warning of damage far greater than its attacks against the South’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010.
The threats hit back at comments made by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak after the North’s rocket launch regarding its collective farm system and lack of attention to human rights and defector issues.
Meanwhile, media reports have cited government officials and experts predicting an imminent nuclear test. Many analysts even expect a nuclear device using highly enriched uranium (HEU) to further up the ante. North Korea’s previous behavioral pattern suggests the regime may conduct another nuclear test, although that is dependent on time and circumstance. Pyongyang’s nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 were preceded by missile and rocket launches.
The main technical motivation for continued nuclear testing would be to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and mount it on a missile, technical experts say. Former Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Siegfried Hecker, who has visited North Korea’s primary nuclear complex on several occasions, said in an April 13 Stanford University brief, “I believe North Korean scientists and engineers have been working to design miniaturized warheads for years, but they will need to test to demonstrate that the design works.”
North Korea’s plutonium stockpile has shrunk with its two nuclear tests, and the regime has halted plutonium production since the disablement of key facilities under the six-party talks. Therefore, a plutonium nuclear test may signal satisfactory operations in its uranium-enrichment activites.
Little is known about the North’s uranium-enrichment capabilities, but a uranium nuclear test could indicate an operational uranium-enrichment program, successful production of HEU in sufficient quantities, and a bomb design. All this would equip Pyongyang to build up larger stocks of weapons-grade material.
From a nonproliferation standpoint, a uranium test would have serious implications.
A key question is whether Pyongyang has the political motivation to follow through with any nuclear test in the near future in the face of tougher international attitudes after its unsuccessful rocket launch last month.