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The Peninsula

Satellite or Missile Test?: The Fallout from North Korea’s Missile Launch

Published February 7, 2016
Category: North Korea

By Troy Stangarone

After moving up its launch window, North Korea again violated previous UN Security Council resolutions by conducting a long-range rocket launch as part of a mission to put its second satellite in orbit. Combined with it fourth nuclear test a little more than a month ago, Pyongyang has undertaken two major provocations and the international community has yet to respond more than rhetorically in a coordinated fashion at the United Nations.

While initial indications are the North Korea was successful in placing its second satellite in orbit, questions still remain regarding the test. Did North Korea test a more powerful rocket than it used in its 2012 satellite launch or an enhanced version of the Unha-3 used at the time? The drop zones identified for the launch are similar to the previous Unha-3 launch, though the differences in the drop zones could also indicate a heavier payload. It is also unclear at this point what the payload may have been. Whether it is a functioning satellite or another object.

Because it is believed that North Korea uses satellite launches as a cover for testing ballistic missile technology, it will be important in the days and weeks ahead to recover parts of the launch vehicle to determine North Korea’s level of technological progress and the capabilities of the missile used.

However, because the test did not attempt reentry it remains unclear if North Korea has mastered the process needed to develop the heat shielding required for an ICBM.

With the test conducted attention will now turn squarely to the Security Council where passage of a new sanctions resolution has stalled with the longest delay in passage of a sanctions resolution after any previous North Korean nuclear test.

How China responds to North Korea’s latest actions will be key to the international response. In a recent call Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama agreed on the need for a “strong and united international response to North Korea’s provocations.” The ability of the Security Council to quickly pass meaningful new sanctions in the aftermath of North Korea’s second provocation will be a test of China’s commitment to a “strong and united” response.

However, China has taken a more cautious position in the early hours since the launch. While most nations have strongly condemned the launch, China’s Foreign Ministry has only expressed regret at the launch and perhaps surprisingly noted that “We believe that the DPRK has the right to make peaceful use of the space, but this right is subject to restrictions of the Security Council resolutions”. Additionally, an editorial in the state run Xinhua news agency stated that “Sanctions are definitely not the aim,” indicating that despite North Korea’s missile launch divisions remain between China on the one hand and the United States, South Korea, and Japan on how to handle provocations by North Korea.

China’s response even contrasts with that of Russia whose Foreign Ministry said that the launch was a “serious exacerbation” of the situation and stated that “The policy chosen by Pyongyang cannot help but incite a strong protest. We insistently recommend that the DPRK administration think whether the policy of opposing the entire international community meets the interests of the country.”

While international efforts have been focused on the UN Security Council, the most significant new sanctions on North Korea will likely come out of the U.S. Congress. The Senate is expected to vote on new sanctions legislation this week. With the recent test, both houses of Congress will likely seek to expedite a conference committee to resolve differences between House and Senate passed sanctions.

Also moving more quickly may be efforts to deploy the THAAD, or Thermal High Altitude Area Defense, system to South Korea. Shortly after North Korea’s missile launch the United States and South Korea announced formally that they will begin discussions on the deployment of THAAD. In the absence of a significant change in North Korea’s policy, it seems likely that the deployment of THAAD will move forward at time to be determined despite China and Russia’s concerns.

While additional sanctions and the deployment of defenses against North Korea’s growing threat remain prudent, North Korea’s growing missile threat and its satellite program need to be addressed more specifically. North Korea’s continuing efforts to advance its delivery systems for its nuclear program, along with efforts to develop a second strike capability, should be a priority going forward separate from its nuclear program as the continuing efforts by Pyongyang to develop the ability to deliver its nuclear weapons represent a clear threat to regional peace and security.

In addition, the U.S. and its allies should try to stay ahead of the curve on North Korea’s space program, especially if China is inclined to be lenient.  In the past North Korea has taken steps to monetize its weapons programs. With potentially two successful satellite launches it will be important for the international community to ensure that North Korea is unable to monetize its satellite program as a new revenue source to fund its weapons programs.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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