Well, that was fast.
Barely two weeks after what seemed to be a good first step in the right direction, the North Koreans announced that they would test-fire a satellite launching rocket sometime in mid-April.
Having taken a course called “Outer Space and Security” in grad school many moons ago (where my final term paper was coincidentally on the North Korean ballistic missile program), I happen to know a little bit about the vagaries of ballistic missile technology. As reported en masse over the weekend, ballistic missiles/space rockets happen to fall in the same “dual use” quandary as nuclear energy. Namely, that the same technologies that can help a country send a satellite into space can also help a country strike another country, such as the United States, thousands of miles away.
So really, what are the North Koreans thinking?
First of all, it’s important to parse the announcement itself. There are indications that the North Koreans knew that this announcement would cause the Obama administration some grief. For instance, the North Koreans were careful to point out that the missile was not going to cause any countries concern; the missile trajectory itself is supposedly going to travel southwards. This is important, if it is true, as the other missile tests in 1998, 2006, and 2009 all were conducted over Japan towards the United States. It seems that the North Koreans are trying to tell us that the test is going to happen, but America, there is no need to worry since it’s not being aimed at you. It’s a space launch, after all and under international law North Korea is allowed to explore space as much as any other country.
That would be all hunky dory if the rest of the world didn’t have cause to be suspicious and the North Koreans didn’t have a track record of reneging on their agreements.
The North Koreans have half a point: if we follow the letter of the law, the launch would not violate the February 29 agreement. After all, they agreed to stop testing ballistic missiles, not space rockets. But any lawyer worth their salt will tell you that agreements are generally not broken by their very letter. Rather, a judge or jury will often go beyond the letter of the law when analyzing any contract. The most pressing element of contract law in this particular instance is one of intent: what exactly did both parties mean when the term “ballistic missile” was written into the agreement? If the American negotiators indeed impressed upon the North Korean negotiators at the time that the term included any rocket launches, including SLVs, and this is what the North Korean negotiators at the time agreed to, then the North Koreans if they go ahead with the SLV launch, have violated the contract.
So the first obvious issue in this case is that it’s not the letter of the agreement that may be broken: it’s the spirit, the intent, a crucial part of contract law in general. According to the information out in open sources, American negotiators made it clear to the North Koreans that any launch would violate this agreement. From what we’ve heard from KCNA, Pyongyang obviously disagrees.
But the fundamental problem here is not that Kim Jong Un is trying to tiptoe his way through a legal agreement. To see what the fundamental problem is, we again have to go back to the spirit of the negotiations. North Korean negotiators have historically shown shrewdness and intelligence in dealing with the rest of the world; after all, they’ve kept America’s brightest negotiators at bay for nearly twenty years now. There is no way in hell that the North Koreans wouldn’t have known this would have caused many a gasket to be blown inside the White House. So if we hold this assumption to be true, this announcement cannot in any sense be attributed to North Korean incompetency. Rather, the ominous conclusion is that this proposed launch is not a naïve mistake in legal interpretation; no, the conclusion to be drawn is that this announcement is intentional.
So if it is intentional, again, what are the North Koreans thinking?
Unfortunately, we just don’t have enough information. As posted on CanKor, theories abound as to the “why” behind what seems to be an irrational move. Is it due to Kim Jong Un’s lack of experience? Is it because there’s a latent struggle between hardliners and reformers? Is it because the North Koreans had buyer’s remorse and wanted a more definitive answer from the Obama administration? Or is it because the North Koreans were simply bargaining in bad faith?
All or some of these theories could be true. Perhaps there’s another reason that addresses more of what’s going on within the DPRK itself: that the North Koreans, and especially Kim Jong Un, desperately need a win.
Let me back up a bit: long range ballistic missile tests, especially of the liquid fuel variety, are not things that are simply done on whim. They require careful preparation, including setting up the required infrastructure to monitor the test itself. In many cases they involve placing seaborne radar assets along the expected trajectory, as one would expect North Korea’s own monitoring capabilities may not be as up to par as those of the United States. This process takes weeks, even months. Given that the test is scheduled in mid-April, and the agreement reached on the last day of February, this test could have been well in the pipeline before the agreement was even reached.
Now we come to the fact that Kim Jong Un needs a win. He’s a completely unproven leader. He’s young. He doesn’t have the track record that his father, let alone, his grandfather had. And if there’s anything that puts the fear of God into him, it’s probably his own people, rather than the Americans, the Chinese, or the South Koreans. So in order to consolidate rule and keep what may be a grumbling elite in check, Kim needs to pull off something big.
Now if we work under the hypothesis that the new leader of North Korea needs to prove something to the North Korean public (and equally likely, the international public as well), the only remaining big ticket item left in the arsenal, for the time being, is a successful satellite launch. After all, the nukes have already been tested and the North Koreans are already proud of that. Yes, the North Koreans have already stated that there are already two Kwangmyungsong’s up there in orbit; however, since we don’t have any objective evidence to that regard, the rest of the world remains unconvinced – and perhaps so do the North Korean elite, who probably know the truth.
But for this to pay off, Pyongyang needs a successful test. The satellite needs to get thrown into orbit and Kim Jong Un Radio broadcast into the receivers that are built into North Korean homes. The citizens of Pyongyang, ie. The elite, need to be seen cheering in the streets in this latest success by Kim Jong Un. The fact that the North Koreans are willing to gamble away a potential confidence-building agreement for this test demonstrates some sort of confidence that this time around, the launch will actually work.
If it does, then we have to start asking ourselves how the North Koreans found success. Pyongyang hasn’t tested a long-range missile since 2009 when the UNSC slapped some rather onerous sanctions on ballistic missile testing, a near prerequisite for the successful manufacture of a long-range rocket. So if the rocket scientists in Musudan haven’t been able to test, and haven’t been able to get it right for the past fifteen years, where did they get the answers?
The simplest, and most logical answer is Iran. As one of the worst kept secrets in ballistic missile development, the DPRK and Iran have been sharing missile technology since the old Nodong days. In fact, the earlier versions of the Shahab series the Iranians have sported have easily been identified as North Korean in design.
Iran, however, has been able to do something that the North Koreans have failed to do: launch a satellite into orbit. They’ve also test-fired mid-range solid fuel missiles successfully. In fact, the Iranians seem to have reached a much more advanced state in missile technology than their North Korean collaborators – which of course in turn have fuelled whispers that the Iranians have been receiving assistance from Russian elements. But I digress.
What the North Koreans have been able to do that the Iranians have not, is test a nuclear weapon. Wouldn’t it be crazy if the North Koreans and Iranians reached a deal, where North Korea would assist to build and test an Iranian nuclear weapon, and Iran would assist North Korea in constructing a workable SLV/ICBM? That would be nuts, right? There’s no evidence to suggest that, right?
No, there is not – not even in the realm of the circumstantial. But as with everything related to North Korea, there are rumours. The latest is that half of the pre-mentioned (possible, conspiracy theorist, Axis-of-Evil in full glory) deal was reached where the Iranians paid the DPRK $55M to test two nuclear weapons. If you look at it, $55 million seems like an awfully small amount of money to do something so potentially provocative. One has to wonder if there was more consideration involved.
Yes, this is all speculation. But going back to the fundamental raison d’etre of this missile test, the North Koreans must know how much is riding on it, and what a gamble it is. If so, then if I were a decision-maker in Pyongyang, I would make sure that the odds of success are high. After all, not only would such a rocket make North Koreans proud, it would suddenly give the North Koreans an even larger stack at the poker table facing US negotiators. And if the probability of some kind of domestic ballistic missile breakthrough within the DPRK is relatively low, it must mean that the technology had to come from outside the country.
Which leads me to believe in mid-April, we’re going to have a North Korean addition to the stars.
It goes without saying that a successful launch would bring upon the mother of all maelstroms in what has already become a rather acrimonious election year in the United States. Of course, the fact that being able to launch a satellite into space is a far cry from being able to hit the continental United States, with a nuclear warhead, within an acceptable circular error probability. Yet if the test is successful, it means that the North Koreans have overcome their difficulties in building that elusive third stage (especially if it’s of the solid fuel variety). They would still have to create a warhead, and the wherewithal to accurately deliver that warhead to a target, but it would mean that they are one step closer to that ultimate goal. If the test is successful, the most alarming factor would be that the North Koreans are getting assistance from outside the country – that despite the sanctions, and despite efforts of the PSI. The Obama administration’s detractors would come out in full force, asking how the administration could even potentially entertain a deal with a country that had no intention of dealing in good faith. Some will invoke the UNSC Resolution 1718 and ask for more stronger measures.
And suddenly, both Iran AND North Korea become election issues. One has to wonder whether the folks at the White House are praying to whatever deity they believe in that the test fails.