Understanding North Korea’s next satellite launch, by Tad Farrell

[A “technical glitch” is delaying the launch of a DPRK “weather satellite” into orbit, timed to coincide with the death of “dear leader” Kim Jong Il one year ago. Much speculation has surrounded this planned launch, coming so soon after a failed launch of a similar rocket in April of this year. In an article that appeared in NK News on 1 December 2012, Tad Farrell gives good reasons to believe that “this time the launch is nothing to do with issues outside of the Korean peninsula.” Farrell, who is based in London, UK, founded NK News in 2010. –CanKor]

A rocket sits on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang in this April 8, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files

A rocket sits on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang in this April 8, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Bobby Yip/Files

Having launched just four long range rockets in the past two decades, news that the DPRK will try to put a satellite into space for the second time in a year is striking.  With a date set for between December 10 – 22, the next launch coincides with forthcoming South Korean presidential elections, a Japanese general election, and the anniversary of Kim Jong Il’s death. The proposed timing is also noteworthy for following a major leadership change in China and the reelection of President Obama to the White House.

With the last launch having cost an estimated $850 million dollars, it is clear that there must be strong imperatives for cash-strapped North Korea to want to launch another rocket so soon. But what are they and what do they mean?  A close look at the context of today’s news suggests that five motivations internal to the Korean peninsula might be behind this launch. And if this is the case, it seems that little can be done to prevent the launch from going ahead.

A Korean space race

Having been in a space race of sorts with South Korea since President Kim Dae Jung initiated a satellite program in 1998, Seoul had planned to launch a satellite in recent weeks. Eager to be the first country to successfully launch a satellite off the Korean peninsula, South Korean authorities tried twice in the past month to ensure that their third Naro-1 rocket launch would go smoothly. An initial attempt was called off in mid-October, while the rescheduled launch date of November 29 was cancelled at the eleventh hour.

But while technical problems were described as cancelling both Naro launch attempts, its possible that the most recent cancellation was actually related to suspicions about an imminent North Korean launch attempt. After all, it would have been politically difficult for South Korea to go ahead with the planned Naro launch while simultaneously leading efforts to condone North Korea’s own rocket plans.

So far, neither Korea has been successful in launching a satellite and all previous attempts have ended in catastrophe for the two rivals. But while the DPRK trails behind the ROK on the vast majority of other indicators, being the first to successfully launch a satellite on the Korean peninsula remains one thing that Pyongyang still has a chance at achieving. As a result, recent South Korean efforts to succeed with Naro could be one of the reasons that North Korea has been compelled to launch another rocket so soon.

Tit-for-tat: South Korean missile range

Another reason North Korea may feel it has legitimacy to launch a rocket is down to recent U.S. approval of South Korean missile range improvements. After months of lobbying, in September the ROK won “permission” from Washington to increase the range of its ballistic missile arsenal from 300km to 800km – a distance that will bring all of the DPRK into South Korean ballistic missile range.

Discontent with already having conventional military superiority and an arsenal of cruise missiles that have the DPRK well within range, South Korea’s request to increase its ballistic missile range was difficult to understand for some. As Jeffrey Lewis noted at Foreign Policy, “this is a bad idea and one that will worsen security dynamics in Northeast Asia and accelerate the spread of long-range missiles.”

It seems he was right: never one to miss an opportunity, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reacted vociferously to the news, saying on October 10 that:

The U.S. has so far stepped up sanctions against the DPRK, calling for preventing its satellite launch for peaceful purposes while claiming that satellite also uses the ballistic missile technology. But, now it is in a position unable to make any excuses even though the DPRK launches a long-range missile for military purposes…The U.S. threw a wet blanket over the effort for restraint of long-range missile launch. 

While South Korea increasing its missile range would unlikely have been a decisive factor for Pyongyang, it provides justification from a a rhetorical perspective at least.

Juche strong: domestic imperatives

nk_satellites1With April 15th 2012 marking the 100th anniversary of founding leader Kim Il Sung’s birth, North Korea had planned to use the Unha-3 rocket launch as a way of celebrating the auspicious date. Indeed, the launch fitted nicely with domestic propaganda that promised the DPRK would become a “strong and prosperous” state by 2012.  While the majority of  North Korean people remain poor and underprivileged, a successful launch could have shown citizens that with technological and scientific achievements accomplished, prosperity may be just around the corner.

Sadly, all did not go to plan for North Korea’s domestic propagandists. In what was must have been a major embarrassment for new leader Kim Jong Un, the Unha 3 rocket disintegrated just minutes after launching. And having invited a huge media presence to observe launch preparations, any notion of hiding the failure was too difficult to hide. So for the first time ever, North Korea conceded had to concede the botch publicly.

With just weeks left before Juche 100 expires on December 31, this second test now gives North Korean propagandists another chance to show domestic audiences that the country can succeed from a scientific perspective at least.

It’s the elections, stupid

South Korea is currently gearing up for presidential elections that are scheduled to take place on December 19. Long known for interfering in the campaign process in the weeks prior to an election, its possible North Korea’s announcement has also been timed to upset the campaign process as much as possible in South Korea. But while the rocket launch will now play a major role in the ROK’s campaign process, it may do so in somewhat unexpected ways.

North Korea has to date made its disdain for conservative front-runner Ms. Park Geun-hye extremely clear. As the daughter of former ROK dictator Park Chung-hee, a man whom North Korea once tried to assassinate and whom ordered a counter-assassination attempt of Kim Il Sung, its not hard to understand North Korea’s distaste of her. Having recently requested that “every class of South Chosun [South Korean] society must resist the trickery of the Saenuri Party and ‘forbid the rebirth of a second Yushin Dictatorship”, it seemed clear that the North Korean electoral preference was to have a progressive candidate in the Blue House.

There are many reasons a liberal President might be attractive for North Korea, especially one like current hopeful Moon Jae-in. Having enjoyed huge injections of aid and investment under progressive leaders Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun, orthodox thinking among North Korea watchers suggested a clear DPRK preference for another liberal president in the ROK. All the more so when considering how bad things got for Pyongyang under current President Lee Myung-bak : aid almost entirely stopped, a huge tourism project (Kumgang-san) was halted, and between 10-20 North Korean personnel were killed in military clashes.

But while North Korea did its best to undermine Park, the timing of the next rocket launch may actually prove to bolster her candidacy. Regarded as the firmer of the two presidential candidates, South Korean voters may be swayed by Park’s capacity to robustly respond to future North Korean provocations. As such, her heritage and conservative ideals may give her a distinct an advantage when compared to Moon Jae-in, who for South Koreans fed up with pacifying North Korea, promises unconditional aid to the DPRK and a considerably softer line.

So why would North Korea prefer another hard-nosed, conservative leader in the Blue House? Known to rely on getting its citizens to rally around the flag, having a hard-line leader in South Korea actually has advantages of its own for Pyongyang. It gives Kim Jong Un an excuse for inter-Korean relations to be in a mess, a reason to explain why North Korea’s military-first focus is essential, and a partial explanation for food and fuel shortages in the years ahead. However, all that would only be useful if North Korea wasn’t desperately short of money…

We don’t need your aid!

The announcement of a second costly satellite launch, coupled to the effect the news will likely have on South Korean politics, might be being facilitated by an increasingly buoyant North Korean economy.  After all, if the DPRK doesn’t need a South Korean leader that plans to “unconditionally” renew aid and can afford a second satellite launch, could its financial affairs actually be considerably better off than some thought?

For a nation that the World Bank estimates to have a GDP of just $32.7 billion dollars, April’s $850 million rocket launch would have used a staggering 2 – 3% of the country’s GDP.  If we assume the second test to cost the same, that would mean a staggering 4-6% of GDP being spent this year alone on the satellite program alone. With Kim Jong Un having made numerous pronouncements to place a greater emphasis on improving the economy, such spending patterns are therefore hard to understand.  This is all the more so when considering the huge expenditure that authorities in Pyongyang have laid out this year in building new apartment complexes, theme parks, dolphinariums, and even luxury saunas.

Given the significant outlay in North Korean expenditure this year, news of the second launch might suggest that increased trade with China has paid dividends well beyond current estimations. Its no secret that trade with China is booming, so its possible that the cost of this years’ launches might be relatively low when compared to those which took place in 2009, 2006 and 1998.  The desperate alternative is that Kim Jong Un is continuing to waste billions on unnecessary prestige projects and the country is headed towards bankruptcy.


As mentioned at the outset, when considering political changes in the U.S., China and Japan, the news of this launch is particularly difficult to understand. If Pyongyang had hopes of renewing dialogue with the U.S. any time soon, believing that recently announced breakthrough talks with Japan could lead anywhere, or in thinking it could welcome China’s new leader Xi Jinping with a period of calm, it must now think again.  Indeed, beyond any imminent hysteria in South Korea, this new rocket test will have serious political consequences for North Korea’s foreign relations with Washington, Tokyo, and importantly, Beijing.

When it comes to the divided peninsula, it seems that a combination of inter-Korean rivalry and Kim Jong Il’s dying wishes to put a satellite into space could well be the principal drivers behind this launch. As such, Kim Jong Un probably cares little about what the international community thinks and as before, there will probably be little repercussions for his country at the UN. More important will be Chinese and South Korean reaction, but for the reasons listed above, it seems nothing said in Beijing or Seoul will prevent this launch from going ahead.

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