North Korea put a satellite into orbit Dec. 12, marking its first success in five tries over 14 years in launching a rocket with technology directly applicable to intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development.
Following the launch, official statements from key countries called for new engagement with North Korea, but it is unclear if this will lead to a resumption of talks over dismantling North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
In interviews since the launch, some current and former officials said that a return to the so-called six-party talks, which involve China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and United States, was unlikely to lead to a comprehensive agreement on Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons programs, but they differed on what the next steps should be.
Some experts said the test indicates that the policy of the United States and North Korea’s neighbors is not working. Under that policy, dubbed “strategic patience” by the Obama administration, the United States is prepared to resume talks if Pyongyang indicates a willingness to negotiate seriously. At the same time, Washington is working to hobble North Korean nuclear and missile programs through U.S. and international efforts to prevent the import and export of proliferation-sensitive materials.
The six-party talks began in 2003 with the goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. The multilateral negotiations were held intermittently until North Korea announced in April 2009 that it would no longer participate.
On Dec. 12, Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that a rocket was launched at 9:49 that morning and entered orbit about nine-and-a-half minutes later. KCNA described the satellite as being fitted with “survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth.”
The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), a joint U.S.-Canadian organization for detecting and tracking aerospace threats, confirmed that the missile “deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit.” In its statement, NORAD said that U.S. missile-warning systems detected the launch and tracked its course.
The earlier North Korean launch attempts, all failures, took place in 1998, 2006, 2009, and last April. All but the 2006 launch were publicized by North Korea as attempts to put satellites into orbit. The last two of these attempts, like the December launch, were prohibited under UN Security Council Resolution 1718, passed in October 2006, and Resolution 1874, passed in June 2009, because the technology of a space-launch vehicle can be used in the development of ballistic missiles.
Both of the 2012 launches took place at North Korea’s Sohae launch facility in the northwest region of the country and used a three-stage, liquid-fueled rocket, the Unha-3, as the satellite launch vehicle.
Michael Elleman, who served as a missile expert for the UN team that conducted weapons inspections in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, cautioned against concluding that the satellite launch was a success, noting that it is not clear if the satellite has transmitted data back to earth.
Elleman, who is now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a Dec. 16 e-mail to Arms Control Today that the launch does not “significantly move North Korea closer to an ICBM capability.” He said the launch vehicle used for the satellite is “too large and cumbersome and would be too vulnerable to a pre-launch interdiction,” meaning that it would be easy to destroy the missile before it was launched.
Elleman said that the launch is one step in approximately 15 to 20 steps that would be necessary for North Korea to “operationalize a nuclear-armed ICBM.” Although Pyongyang did learn something from this launch, it remains a “handful of years away” from being able to strike the continental United States from North Korean territory, he said.
During the launch last April, the rocket failed approximately one to two minutes after it lifted off. Elleman pointed to several modifications to the Unha-3 that he said successfully delivered the satellite into orbit. For example, he noted that the aerodynamic fins that were used during the first stage were “larger and more seamlessly affixed” to the rocket. The North Koreans could have made other modifications that were not observable, he said. Elleman said it is unknown whether the adjustment to the fins and any other modifications were made on the basis of data accumulated from the April launch.
After the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in December 2011, Pyongyang and Washington negotiated a bilateral deal that was concluded last Feb. 29. Known as the Leap Day agreement, the deal required Pyongyang to suspend uranium enrichment and institute a moratorium on testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons in return for food aid from the United States. The agreement broke down after the April launch attempt, which Washington said was a violation of the missile-testing moratorium. (See ACT, May 2012.)
Officials from countries involved in the negotiations with North Korea condemned the December satellite launch and separately called for Pyongyang to abide by UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit missile launches and nuclear activities. It is unclear if these countries will actively pursue a resumption of the talks.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said at a Dec. 12 press conference that North Korea would have to “demonstrate clearly and without equivocation [its] commitment to denuclearization” as a foundation for a “credible resumption” of the six-party process.
The following day, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that he could not offer a “preview of next steps.” He said that there is a path for North Korea to “end its isolation,” but that requires “abiding by its international obligations, abiding by United Nations Security Council resolutions.”
South Korean president-elect Park Geun-hye said in a Dec. 20 speech that she would pursue new talks with North Korea, but she did not indicate if she would conduct the talks in the six-party framework. Park also called for an increase in humanitarian aid that is not tied to progress in resuming negotiations on Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Outgoing President Lee Myung-bak drastically cut assistance to North Korea during his presidency.
Japan and Russia also issued statements condemning the launch on Dec. 12 as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
An official from a country participating in the six-party talks said Dec. 14 that it was unlikely that resuming negotiations within that framework would be helpful in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. He said he believes the United States should seek bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang.
The current international strategy of sanctions and isolation is not effective because China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, can veto council resolutions, the official said. China would be likely to block approval of further North Korean sanctions in order to prevent instability on the Korean peninsula, he said. Chinese leaders fear that a further worsening of economic conditions in North Korea could lead to a flood of refugees into China that would slow Beijing’s economic growth, the official said.
China’s past support for Security Council action was in reaction to nuclear testing, and Beijing will not respond as harshly to a satellite launch, he said.
Beijing “fears the impact of a revolution” in North Korea far more than it fears a nuclear-armed North Korea, he said, maintaining that this is why China did not condemn the satellite launch.
In its statement, China did not explicitly say that it considered the launch to be violation of Security Council restrictions. In a Dec. 12 press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said North Korea has the “right of peaceful use of outer space” but that the right is “subject to restrictions of relevant UN Security Council resolutions.” Lei said North Korea’s decision to go ahead with the launch was “regrettable” in light of international concerns.
Meanwhile, two former officials with expertise in North Korea said they saw utility, though limited, in restarting the six-party talks. George Lopez, a former member of a panel of experts that advises the UN on implementing sanctions on North Korea, said that the six-party talks are the “only hope for sitting down with the new leadership” in Pyongyang in the near future and that restarting the negotiations would increase China’s “limited leverage” over North Korea. If Chinese leaders are concerned about North Korea, they will push to begin the talks as soon as possible so that “their own advisory and protective role would emerge in the consciousness” of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, he said in a Dec. 16 e-mail to Arms Control Today.
The official from the country participating in the talks said the United States consistently overestimates China’s influence on Pyongyang. If the United States talks directly with North Korea, China will have less of a chance to intervene to protect its own interests, he said.
Victor Cha, deputy head of the U.S. delegation for the six-party talks under President George W. Bush, said that continuing the current policy is no longer an option and that the more progress North Korea makes on its nuclear and ICBM programs, the more difficult “rollback” in these areas will become. In a Dec. 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today, he said that the six-party framework would “only serve the purpose of slowing or freezing” Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons activities and did not fully deal with uranium enrichment or deal at all with missiles.
Cha said that the Obama administration needs to decide whether North Korea is an existential threat to U.S. interests. If so, the Obama administration should adopt a “package of policies that does everything possible to emasculate the threat,” he said. If the United States decides that North Korea will not threaten to use the nuclear weapons that it possesses, Washington should pursue a strategy that ensures North Korea a “stake in the global community” to prevent proliferation, he said.
Lopez suggested starting with an exchange in which North Korea would agree to International Atomic Energy Agency inspections in return for international recognition of its nuclear status. Although he said he doubted that the West would agree to this process anytime soon, he said that North Korea’s success in living under sanctions and international condemnation brings Pyongyang “to the the table with a position of strength.”
Further sanctions are widely seen as unlikely to change North Korea’s decision to continue developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Lopez said that North Korean officials are adamant in their resolve not to be “influenced by global carrots and sticks.”
Although sanctions have “put a dent in the pace of development,” they have not sufficiently curtailed the program, largely because of North Korea’s “very sophisticated and illicit” procurement networks, he said.
Lopez noted that the sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union, and the UN do not restrict the ability of scientists and engineers to travel to North Korea. He said there is some evidence that Iranian experts may be advising Pyongyang.
News outlets reported the presence of Iranian scientists in North Korea ahead of the launch, but Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi on Dec. 24 dismissed these reports as “speculation.” Iran and North Korea are widely believed to have collaborated on ballistic missile development in the past.