Satellite shock

Print edition : May 08, 2009
in Singapore

South Koreans burn signs denouncing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and the rocket launch, near the U.S. embassy in Seoul on April 5.-LEE JAE-WON /REUTERS

THE controversial launch of a satellite by the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) on April 5 has once again upset the strategic calculations of major powers in East Asia. As a resident power in the region, the United States is leading the campaign to tame the DPRK.

However, the U.S. and its allies see the launch as no more than a partially successful test-flight of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). America is not as alarmed by it as it was by Chinas space-faring feat of successfully carrying out an anti-satellite test in 2007. From the standpoint of U.S. military experts, the 2007 event was as significant as the former Soviet Unions launch of Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite, in 1957. While the DPRKs latest test poses no threat to the U.S. supremacy in outer space, President Barack Obama has led a new diplomatic offensive. Thereby hangs yet another story of a potential reconfiguration of the East Asian order with reference to the DPRK itself. Surely, diplomatic experts do not expect any such reconfiguration to take place in the near future. However, Pyongyang has yet again jolted not only the U.S. but also Japan, South Korea and China.

At the time this report is written, the United Nations Security Council is likely to debate a draft resolution condemning the DPRKs latest action. In the first place, the draft was not at all easy to formulate. Differences between China and Russia, on the one side, and the U.S. and Japan, on the other, were slowly narrowed. It was not as if China and Russia were at first supportive of the DPRKs ballistic missile programme, already a subject of the Councils sanctions. The initial concerns of these two veto-empowered permanent members were centred on a matter of principle. They were against any censure of a U.N. member-state for its attempt at space exploration under international law. They wanted to be sure that the DPRK had deviated from the path that Iran recently charted by demonstrably launching a satellite into space.

At stake in this entire closed-door debate was the DPRKs failure to show that a satellite was indeed put into orbit. A Japanese spokesman told Frontline that the DPRK, by launching a flying object of the kind monitored, had violated the relevant U.N. resolutions. He was speaking shortly after Japan detected the first signs of the launch. What could not be missed were the sarcasm and diplomatic delicacy behind his reference to a purported satellite as no more than a flying object.

Sarcasm was writ large over the assessment that Pyongyangs much-advertised satellite test had in fact failed. For weeks before the launch, the DPRK was busy announcing its plans to put a satellite in space for peaceful purposes. Due diligence was also evident in the DPRKs pre-launch notifications to the relevant international maritime and aviation authorities. They were advised to keep clear of the likely flight path in the sky and the waters below during the planned launch between April 4 and 8. It was quite extraordinary that the DRPK, often dismissive of the larger international communitys norms, took so much care now.

At the same time, it was diplomatic nicety on Japans part to describe the purported satellite as just a flying object. After all, a satellite launch is not tabooed under international law, although the application of this norm to Pyongyang remains highly debatable. Japan said Security Council Resolutions 1695 and 1718 clearly prohibit North Korea from developing ballistic missile technology.

This position, Tokyo said, would be valid, regardless of Pyongyangs claims that it had launched a satellite and not an ICBM. For Tokyo and its allies, the technological bottom line was that the launch involved a dual-use rocket with potential military capabilities. The diplomatic bottom line, though, was that the launch would have a negative impact on peace and stability in East Asia. In such an elaborate context, Tokyos initiative for an emergency session of the Security Council was readily accepted by the other members.

Two versions on the technical data, one by the DPRK and the other by Japan, merit attention for the light they shed on the importance of the launch. The DPRK state news agency said a home-made three-stage rocket, Unha-2 (Milky Way), put an indigenous communications satellite into orbit. The entire operation was said to have taken nine minutes and two seconds. The satellite, with an unspecified technical profile, would take 104 minutes and 12 seconds for each orbit around the earth, the agency emphasised. The satellite would, in its oval orbits, come as close to the earth as 490 km and go as far away as 1,426 km, the DPRK informed.

A logical issue is whether the elaborate statement was a fake progress report on a botched-up launch or indeed the intended orbital plan of an actual satellite. In any case, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. had, before the event, gone on military alert against the possibility of a threatening or wayward launch. However, as the controversial launch progressed, none of the countries felt the need to intercept or shoot down either the rocket or its debris.

Significant in this context is the Japanese account of the launch. It was estimated that the first part or stage of the flying object fell into the sea at a point about 280 km west of Japan. The second part was estimated to have plunged into the Pacific Ocean at a point about 1,270 km east of Japan. These initial estimates were later fine-tuned. As for the third stage of the rocket, the DPRKs estranged ethnic neighbour, South Korea, said the launch as a whole was not a success. Seoul asserted that no object entered orbit. Obviously, the U.S. was in agreement.

The Security Council held an emergency session hours after the launch, but the five permanent members and Japan agreed on a draft only a week later. While the details of the draft are not definitive, the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Japan are concerned. It is understood that a range of sanctions on the DPRK, already in place, will be tightened. These are an arms embargo and other steps designed to prevent the flow of missile-related and nuclear-weapons-related traffic to and from the DPRK.

A matter of utmost interest, on the eve of a final decision by the Security Council, was the DPRKs likely reaction. Pyongyang had threatened to walk away from the six-party talks (the U.S., the DPRK, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia) on North Koreas nuclear weapons programme in the event of new sanctions. These parleys, chaired by China, have made slow but real progress towards formulating principles and procedures for the DPRKs nuclear disarmament. The proverbial devil is not in the details of these agreed norms but in their actual implementation on the ground. If the North Koreans walk out, a possibility one week after their satellite launch, disarming them in the nuclear and missile fields will be tougher.

An image made available on April 7 shows the "rocket" lifting off from Musudan-ni, North Korea.-AP

Around the time North Korea launched its satellite, Obama was touring Europe, with nuclear disarmament as one of his priorities. He announced a firm commitment, for the first time ever by the U.S., to the total elimination of all nuclear weapons, including his countrys, over time. While being realistic about the futuristic scope of such a commitment, he did pledge a serious beginning by the U.S.

It is too early to predict whether his affirmations will push forward the multilateral efforts to disarm the DPRK in the nuclear and missile domains. The six parties will need to agree upon a set of security and economic guarantees that could persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile plans. Additionally, the issue of Pyongyangs existing capabilities in these domains, however acquired, will need to be addressed. This is a tall order.

The DPRK test-fired a stream of missiles to coincide with the Independence Day celebrations in the U.S. in 2006. On October 9 that year, Pyongyang tested a nuclear explosive device: the explosion was generally believed to have measured 3 to 4 on the Richter scale.

China voiced firm opposition to the test, while Japan took serious note of the small experiment. Those two actions by the DPRK, after the process of the six-party parleys began, led to sequential U.N. sanctions in Resolutions 1695 and 1718. In fact, Pyongyang carried out an intermediate-range missile test in 1998. That was also described as a satellite launch.

It is against this background that the impact of Pyongyangs latest satellite launch on East Asian power equations will be felt. Already, South Korea has pledged to take concrete counter-measures. And Japan is assessing the long-term trajectory that the DPRK might potentially take if allowed to remain unchecked.

Pyongyang views Tokyo and Seoul as hostile neighbours. With China and Russia, the DPRKs ties have fluctuated from political warmth to indifference.

Above all, the DPRK is fully cognisant of the U.S. as a resident power in East Asia. In large part, DPRK leader Kim Jong-ils public celebration of the latest test is directed at the new powers that be in Washington, and at China. Indeed, the fulcrum of any future power equations in East Asia might well be the U.S.-China relationship over time. In fact, Western experts such as Kenneth B. Pyle point out that Japans leaders do not want to be hostage to the China policy of the United States. All these long-term issues have been propelled into focus by the DPRKs latest action.

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