North Korea rocket launch plans: Little to gain, nothing to lose

Since North Korea announced plans to launch a rocket this month, the threats of retaliation have been swift and global.

South Korea has called the mission, ostensibly to put a satellite into orbit, “a full-frontal challenge” to regional peace and stability. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that the United States is “deeply concerned” and urged NATO allies to press the government in Pyongyang to abandon its provocative plans. Japan has threatened to shoot down any North Korean projectiles over its air space and ordered the deployment of Patriot anti-missile defenses to Okinawa.

Even allies China and Russia have made their opposition clear, with Beijing appealing for its neighbor to “exercise calmness” and Moscow “emphatically” asking the North Korean government to reconsider.

The international community has been on the same page in warning of what’s at stake if new leader Kim Jong Un goes through with the controversial launch and its presumed aim of demonstrating that North Korea may now be able to reach the U.S. mainland with a nuclear warhead.

But the community of nuclear security experts that monitors the communist-ruled state is equally united in the expectation that the warnings will be ignored and North Korea will fire off another Unha-3 rocket like the one sent aloft -- for all of 90 seconds -- in April.


The launch has been cast as a commemoration of the Dec. 17, 2011, death of Kim Jong Il, father of North Korea’s nuclear programs and the country’s twentysomething leader who succeeded him. It was also presumably intended to match South Korea’s planned satellite launch, a Nov. 29 mission scrapped at the last minute “for technical reasons.”

Why impoverished and underdeveloped North Korea needs its own satellite deployment system when foreign commercial ventures could loft its Earth-observation technology for a fraction of the cost is a question on which Korea watchers can only speculate.

“Clearly it’s a prestige issue to people in the region. If South Korea wants to do this, it’s not surprising that North Korea wants to keep up with the Joneses,” said David Wright, an arms control expert with the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.

He doubts Pyongyang scientists have had adequate time to correct whatever caused the rocket launched April 13 to explode shortly after blastoff and plummet into the Yellow Sea.

“But if it should work, if they were able to put a satellite up, they could say they beat South Korea,” Wright said. “And that could be a real feather in their cap.”

Wright argued for seeking diplomatic solutions to a standoff partly of the West’s own making. Concessions made by Pyongyang during the Clinton administration allowed more than a decade of international inspection of North Korea’s nuclear programs. But the promised payoff of aid and engagement was blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress, Wright recalled.

“They feel burned and that they are held to a double standard vis-a-vis South Korea,” Wright said of the North’s seeming intransigence.

Stephan Haggard, a North Korea expert at UC San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies, surmises that Pyongyang is trying to get some attention after being ignored through the U.S. presidential campaign and more pressing Middle East crises.

He also sees domestic political pressure compelling Kim to make a brash show of technological achievement, to placate the military and fulfill his late father’s aim of deploying a satellite in this centenary year of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

The launch, announced by state-run media on Saturday to occur between Dec. 10 and Dec. 22, follows a recent revision in the U.S.-South Korea defense pact allowing Seoul to expand its missile range from 300 to 800 kilometers, or up to 500 miles, to defend against any hostile action by North Korea.

“They’re in an arms race with South Korea. They may have felt they had to push back,” Haggard said of Pyongyang’s unusual decision to stage a winter launch.

He is also puzzled by the timing, with elections this month in Japan and South Korea. Whether successful or not, the launch would be seen as a belligerent act and likely spur voters to back hardliners instead of candidates who favor improved relations.

Others see North Korea’s vowed defiance as in keeping with a cultivated rogue posture.

“They don’t care” about the potential consequences of further isolation, said Joel Wit, a visiting fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “All the sanctions we have already haven’t forced them to change direction.”

Sanctions are already as severe as the international community can manage, given China’s resistance, said Wit, frequent contributor to the institute’s 38 North blog. “As a result, we don’t have any leverage with the North Koreans at this point.”

The launch will go forward, Wit said with certainty, leaving open only the question of how far the rocket will fly.

“Any country starting out testing long-range missiles has a lot of flops,” Wit said. “What is interesting to speculate about here is, what happens if this time it succeeds?”


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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.