North Korea on March 16 announced that it will launch a rocket mounted with an Earth observation satellite in mid-April. It insists that every nation has a right to pursue peaceful use of outer space. But given its nuclear weapons program, it is not far-fetched to suspect that the launch is really a test of a long-range ballistic missile.
The launch, scheduled between April 12 and 16, follows a failed satellite launch in April 2009, in which a three-stage rocket flew over Japan and fell into the Pacific Ocean after flying more than 3,000 km. It is predicted that, this time, the first stage will fall into the sea west of South Korea and the second stage, east of the Philippines — about 3,000 km from the launch site near the Yellow Sea.
North Korea’s announcement came slightly more than two weeks after Pyongyang and Washington reached a deal under which the North would implement a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. In return, the North Koreans agreed to let International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment and reactor disablement at the facility. The U.S. would proceed with a 240,000-ton package of food aid.
The North timed the launch during a period of politically important dates for the communist nation. April 15 is the 100th anniversary of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung’s birth. In mid-April, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is expected to be promoted to general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the North’s ruling party, at a meeting of party representatives. April 25 is also the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.
North Korea must remember that the launch violates the 2009 United Nations Security Council resolution, which prohibits the country from carrying out any launch that uses ballistic missile technology.
The North Korean leadership apparently aims to put the U.S. in a difficult position. If the U.S. suspends the promised food aid in protest against the satellite launch, North Korea will very likely use it as an excuse to resume uranium enrichment. But this is shortsighted thinking. The leadership must realize that its isolation in the international community will further deepen and its economic woes will worsen, increasing the suffering of its people.