SINGAPORE – In 1998, North Korea caused widespread alarm by firing a rocket over Japan’s main island of Honshu into the Pacific Ocean. It followed this provocative move by more long-range missile tests in 2006 and 2009.
Despite even stronger international opposition today, Pyongyang appears determined to press ahead with a plan to launch an observation satellite into orbit later this week using a similar but possibly improved version of the Taepodong-2 missile that it last tested in April 2009. North Korea calls the rocket Unha-3.
The United States and its Asia-Pacific allies, including Australia, Japan and South Korea, view the planned launch as a disguised test of a ballistic missile that one day could carry a nuclear warhead. They say it violates a United Nations Security Council resolution.
Pyongyang insists it is for peaceful purposes, even though space launches can contribute in significant ways to advances in military missile technology. North Korea says the launch will take place between April 12 and 16. Recent satellite photographs indicate that preparations for the launch are well advanced.
One major difference this time is the announced direction of the proposed rocket firing. Instead of heading eastward over just one country, Japan, into the empty spaces of the Pacific, Pyongyang has advised that the new trajectory will go south passing high above, or near to, South Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
All these countries, as well as Australia, Russia and Vietnam, have expressed concern that if the launch goes ahead it will send tension rippling across the region, with potentially unpredictable consequences.
Countries in the path of the planned launch are worried about the impact of falling debris should the rocket malfunction, as happened with previous launches. In close consultation with its ally, the U.S., Japan has deployed several warships armed with high-altitude missiles, as well as land-based missile defence batteries, to shoot down the North Korean rocket or large chunks of it should they threaten Japanese territory.
Pyongyang has advised that the second stage of its latest rocket lifting the satellite into orbit is expected to splash down 190 km east of the northern Philippines, an area frequently used by commercial shipping and aircraft. The first stage of the rocket would fall about 140 km off South Korea’s west coast, in international waters between China and the South.
A successful North Korean space launch could show that Guam and other U.S. bases in the western Pacific are within striking distance of Pyongyang’s missiles and that the country is on its way to achieving reliable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) status.
This would bolster the authority and prestige of North Korea’s young and untested leader, Kim Jong Un, who took over as ruler after his father Kim Jong Il died in December.
ICBMs have a range of more than 5,500 km. The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific told lawmakers in Washington last month that North Korea is developing a mobile ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S.. Although the new missile had not yet been tested, “we are watching the development very closely,” he added.
Only two countries, China and Russia, currently field ICBMs mounted on special road transporters that can be moved around and hidden to avoid detection. Three other established nuclear powers, Britain, France and the U.S., have an ICBM capability but use bombers, submarines or hardened silos buried deep into the ground to unleash nuclear weapons.
If North Korea goes ahead with the satellite launch, it will be the first using a new facility on the west coast that is bigger than the site North Korea previously used on its east coast. The new launch center will enable the North to fire larger rockets more frequently, and send them south instead of east.
The North Korean space launch would abort a recent deal with the U.S. that was seen a major step toward resuming peace talks for the Korean Peninsula chaired by China. The February deal would have provided 240,000 tons of urgently needed U.S. food aid to North Korea in exchange for halting uranium enrichment and other sensitive nuclear work, as well as freezing further nuclear weapon or long-range missile tests.
Following a launch, the Obama administration would almost certainly tighten sanctions on North Korea and seek further U.N. sanctions, making renewed confrontation difficult to avoid. The U.N. Security Council’s condemnation of North Korea’s long-range missile test in 2009 led the regime to expel U.N. nuclear inspectors, withdraw from denuclearization negotiations and detonate a second nuclear test bomb underground.
With relations between North and South Korea already on knife edge, the U.S. bound by presidential election politics to play tough, and China constrained by an overriding interest to avoid pushing its North Korean ally to the point of collapse, the omens for a lasting resolution of the missile crisis are not promising.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.