By Kelsey Davenport
The United States and Japan called for a UN Security Council meeting after North Korea attempted to launch its first military reconnaissance satellite into orbit, but the body failed to take any action to condemn Pyongyang for violating council resolutions.
The new three-stage Chollima-1 space launch vehicle was launched from the Sohae Satellite Launching Station on May 31. The satellite and remains of the launch vehicle crashed into the Yellow Sea after the engine in the second stage of the rocket failed.
The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) acknowledged the failure and said the National Aerospace Development Administration attributed it to “low reliability and stability of the new-type engine” used in the Chollima-1.
The aerospace administration will “thoroughly investigate” the defects, and another satellite will be launched “as soon as possible,” according to KCNA.
South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol issued a statement calling the launch a “serious provocation that threatens peace and security on the Korean peninsula and the international community.” South Korea and Japan issued alerts for people to take shelter once the launch was detected.
South Korea launched its first commercial-grade satellite into orbit just days before North Korea’s failed attempt. But Pyongyang is prohibited from launching satellites under UN Security Council resolutions because the launch vehicle technology is applicable to missile development. Despite those restrictions, North Korea has launched what it described as earth observation satellites into orbit in the past, but said this is the first one intended for military reconnaissance. (See ACT, March 2016.)
In a June 4 statement in KCNA, Kim Yo Jong, vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, defended the satellite launch as a “sovereign right.”
Kim, who is also the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Pyongyang will never recognize the “illegal” Security Council resolutions.
She justified the launch as a “legal countermeasure” to cope with U.S. and South Korean military threats that “have already crossed the red line.”
The Political Bureau of the Central Committee, comprising North Korea’s top party leaders, criticized the officials responsible for the launch failure. According to a June 19 report in KCNA on the party meeting, the successful deployment of a military reconnaissance satellite is necessary for North Korea’s military to make “full preparations for combat.” The bureau, which was holding its eighth plenum, commended advances in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but called for “increasing the production of powerful nuclear weapons.”
The United States and Japan called for an emergency meeting of the Security Council following the launch, but that June 2 meeting did not lead to any statement or resolution condemning North Korea’s actions. The Security Council also failed to act after a similar meeting was called in response to North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in April. (See ACT, May 2023.)
During the June 2 meeting, Robert Wood, the U.S. deputy ambassador to the United Nations, called the launch a “brazen violation of multiple Security Council resolutions” and said North Korea “raised tensions and risked destabilizing the already sensitive security situation in the region.”
Wood raised concerns about the Security Council’s failure to respond to the illicit activity and said North Korea is “emboldened by the silence.” Wood argued that Pyongyang is “trying to normalize these unlawful launches” with the “support of its two staunch defenders” on the Security Council. He called on members to condemn North Korea’s action and urged Pyongyang to refrain from conducting another launch.
Similar to the April meeting, China and Russia resisted these calls. Anna Evstigneeva, Russia’s deputy UN ambassador, said the United States is the “root cause” of escalating regional tensions and pointed to U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises as destabilizing.
North Korea conducted the satellite launch during a large-scale U.S.-South Korean military exercise. The joint training ended on June 15 with a live fire drill that Yoon called an “annihilation” exercise designed to repel enemy strikes and conduct a counterattack on North Korea. Yoon oversaw the drill and said afterward that South Korea will respond “without a moment’s hesitation” to North Korean provocations and that it is South Korea’s “overwhelming power that will bring about real peace.”
In addition to blaming the U.S.-South Korean military exercises for stoking the crisis, Evstigneeva said Russia opposes the “inhumane policy of enhancing the sanctions pressure.”
She said Moscow supports a “comprehensive settlement of the situation on the Korean peninsula” by addressing the “legitimate concerns and rights of all the states involved.” She said that, despite U.S. rhetorical support for diplomacy, Russia is not sure if the United States is “truly prepared to hold meaningful discussions” with North Korea.
Geng Shuang, China’s UN ambassador, argued that it is not productive to “to put all the blame on one party.” He added that U.S. military activities undermine statements in support of diplomacy.
In response, Wood said it is “hard to imagine that we should ease sanctions” on North Korea while it continues its destabilizing activities because that would send a message that countries can “willfully violate” Security Council resolutions and “be rewarded.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on the international community, specifically China, to do more to encourage North Korea to act responsibly. “China is in a unique position to press Pyongyang to engage in dialogue and to end its dangerous behavior,” Blinken said on June 19 during a trip to Beijing.
Ishikane Kimihrio, Japan’s UN ambassador, also pushed back on calls that the Security Council should not provoke North Korea. He said the silence will encourage “rule breakers to write the playbook as they like.”
Kim Yo Jong denounced the Security Council meeting as a “discriminative and rude action.” She said North Korea will continue to take “proactive measures to exercise all the lawful rights of a sovereign state, including the one to [a] military reconnaissance satellite launch.”