Breaking News Briefs

Vol. 3, No. 6, April 13, 2012                                                                                                                 View PDF

These occasional briefs are designed to provide a quick overview and analysis of important events as they happen.  Written by USC KSI faculty and fellows, the briefs are distributed by e-mail and are available on the KSI website, /ksi.  All media are free to quote from this briefing, provided reference is made to the author(s) and the USC Korean Studies Institute. 

North Korea’s Failed Rocket Launch

Ki-Young Sung, Postdoctoral Fellow, USC Korean Studies Institute


There is a dispute over whether the launch of the ‘Kwnagmyongsong-3’ was a ballistic missile test or a satellite experiment. What is your view?

The technology used for a missile or a satellite launch are quite similar. But many experts point out that North Korea’s primitive and mock-up scale satellite (100kg) was not believed to be appropriate for its alleged purpose: weather prediction and earth observation. According to cost-benefit studies by scientists, the launch cost must be no higher than $40,000 per kilogram for the launch to be financially viable. A rough calculation for the ‘Kwangmyong-3’ showed that the launch would cost $3 million per kilogram. The conclusion is that this launch is scientifically nonsense and it cannot be understood without paying heed to the political purposes Pyongyang had in mind.

What sort of political goal does North Korea want to achieve through this provocative action that may bring about further sanctions from the international community?

The launch was designed and executed as a part of the celebration ceremony for “the Day of the Sun” (Kim Il Sung’s 100th birthday, April 15). It is fair to say that this event had been planned well before Kim Jong Il’s death and the rise of his youngest son Kim Jong Un. North Korea had already proclaimed that the North Korean founding leader’s centennial birthday would be the moment when North Korea would enter a new era called “kangsŏngtaekook” (strong and prosperous nation). The ‘kangsŏngtaekook’ project, which began in the late 1990s, is a national strategy to show off the grandeur of the nation. The project consists of three pillars: an economically, ideologically, and militarily strong and prosperous nation. Since the regime is far from achieving the first two goals, it has attempted to show off its enhanced missile technology, pretending to be a militarily strong and prosperous nation. This is the last trump card it can play in order to camouflage its failed attempt to accomplish economic prosperity and to consolidate ideological indoctrination. In this sense, it is expected that the failure of the launch and the quick admission of this fiasco by the state media could be a significant blow to the new North Korean leadership.   

Do you see differences between this launch and the past similar attempts?

The North Korean authority made an unprecedented invitation to foreign journalists to see the launch preparation process and even to closely observe the satellite itself. After the rocket burst into pieces less than one minute after launch, the North Korean media quickly admitted the failure in approximately in 4 hours, which was a departure from the past practices, and quite surprising. With similar launch projects in the past, the North Korean regime had insisted its satellite successfully entered orbit even though the international scientists and other governments monitoring those launches had conclusive evidence that the satellite had failed to reach orbit.

How do you expect the United States and the international community to react to this provocative launch?

The United States will move on both multilateral and bilateral fronts. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874 bans North Korea from conducting ‘any launch using ballistic missile technology’. Whether this launch is of a satellite or a missile, the United States and the major players in the UN (including Russia) are already reaffirmed the launch in itself constituted a violation of the resolution. But China, which has been reluctant to take excessively coercive actions toward North Korea, remains cautious so far. As for the likelihood of another UNSC resolution, at least at this point, the United States seems less enthusiastic about rallying further sanctions in the UN. A UNSC presidential statement with an escalated tone of criticism against North Korea is another option, as are Iran-style bilateral financial sanctions. However, the key to effective multilateral sanctions remains in China’s hands, and it is not clear how enthusiastically China would endorse or implement any measures against North Korea. Bilateral U.S. countermeasures have already been implemented. The United States made it clear before and after the launch that they would not provide North Korea with the 240,000 tons of nutrition assistance promised in February 2012, since the launch is a grave violation of that agreement. However, Pyongyang has been determined to be acting according to its own policy logic and self-defined interests. This launch and their expected subsequent actions will be no exception. North Korea is arguing that the purpose of this launch is absolutely peaceful and threatening to conduct even another nuclear test and more in the event that the United States nullifies the February 29th agreement.

Is it probable that North Korea might conduct another nuclear test in the wake of this rocket failure?

It is hard to predict how new leader Kim Jong Un might deal with the embarrassment of the rocket failure. But it is worth noting the past pattern of nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. In 2006, the rocket launch of ‘Taepodong-2’ (July) preceded the first nuclear test (October), and the second nuclear test was conducted just a month after the ‘Kwangmyongsong-2’ launch in 2009. Pyongyang took advantage of the economic sanctions as an excuse for taking even more provocative actions. An even more worrying signal comes from satellite images indicating the North is silently preparing the third nuclear test, which were unveiled by South Korea’s intelligence agency. To make matters worse, if the third test is fuelled by highly enriched uranium, rather than plutonium which was used in the past two tests, this will be a signal indicating a great escalation of the crisis.   

Ki-Young Sung is a post-doctoral research fellow at the USC Korean Studies Institute.

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