North Korea scored a stunning success Wednesday, firing a long-range rocket that put its own satellite into orbit for the first time, one day after South Korean officials claimed North Korean engineers were dismantling the rocket for repairs.
The North insisted on going through with the launch in the face of widespread international criticism, underscoring its determination to produce missiles for its own use and export – and possibly carrying out a third nuclear test.
South Korea joined the United States and Japan in strongly condemning the launch as a clear violation of UN sanctions imposed after previous launches of similar rockets in 2006 and 2009. US, South Korean, and Japanese officials see the move as basically a test of a fearsome device capable of delivering a nuclear or chemical warhead as far as Hawaii, Alaska, or even the US West Coast.
A spokesman for the National Security Council in Washington denounced the launch as “a highly provocative act that threatens regional security” using “ballistic missile technology despite express prohibitions by UN Security Council resolutions.”
Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who was in Seoul to participate in a conference at the Asan Institute, sees the launch as a prelude to North Korea’s third underground nuclear test.
North Korea tested nuclear devices with plutonium at their core in 2006 and 2009, but has yet to test a device made from highly enriched uranium.
“An HEU explosion,” Paal says, “will give them leverage against South Korea.”
Publicly, North Korea is priding itself on a test that honors the late “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il before the first anniversary of his death next Monday. The capital, Pyongyang, burst into celebration after the launch, which the North says proves its claims that all its launches were for scientific purposes.
“The successful launch of the satellite is a proud fruition of the Workers' Party of Korea's policy of attaching importance to the science and technology,” says Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). “It is also an event of great turn in developing the country's science, technology and economy by fully exercising the independent right touse space for peaceful purposes.”
The success of the launch before the anniversary of Mr. Kim’s death seems all the more meaningful in view of the failure of a long-range missile that crashed into the Yellow Sea west of South Korea last April 13 shortly after liftoff. That launch was intended to celebrate the centennial of the birth of “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, father of Kim Jong-il and grandfather of “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un. Kim Il-sung ruled for nearly half a century before his death in 1994.
The KCNA dispatch conveys a mood of vindication as well as victory.
“At a time when great yearnings and reverence for Kim Jong-il pervade the whole country,” it says, North Korea’s “scientists and technicians brilliantly carried out his behests to launch a scientific and technological satellite in 2012, the year marking the 100th birth anniversary of President Kim Il-sung.”
Confirming the North's account of the launch
The rocket, according to KCNA, roared off its pad at the Sohae Space Center near the Chinese border at 9:49 a.m. Korea time, 7:49 p.m. Tuesday in the US. South Korean and US officials say the first stage dropped off in the Yellow Sea and the second stage in the Philippine Sea.
The satellite, says the KCNA dispatch, “is fitted with survey and communications devices essential for the observation of the earth."
US, South Korean, and Japanese officials say there’s no way to tell what the satellite is achieving scientifically, but confirmed the rest of the North Korean claim as essentially true.
“The missile deployed an object that appeared to achieve orbit,” says the North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado, adding the assurance that “at no time was the missile or the resultant debris a threat to North America.”
Analysts are less concerned about the details of the launch than they are by North Korea’s total defiance of appeals from friends and foes alike to call it off.
South Korea's intelligence failure
The sense of concern is nowhere so deep as in South Korea in view of the failure to realize the imminence of the launch.
South Korean newspapers on Tuesday carried headlines reporting a military official as saying North Korea had removed the rocket from its launch pad after extending the final deadline for the launch from Dec. 2 to Dec. 29.
Lee Tae-ho, secretary general of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, often critical of the policies of the conservative government, said he did not see how South Korea’s National Intelligence Service “did not predict the launch” while putting “so much effort into collecting local information.”
That’s a thinly disguised reflection of the claim that the National Intelligence Service is playing a role in the current presidential campaign in which the conservative Park Geun-hye, daughter of long-ruling dictator Park Chung-hee, faces the liberal Moon Jae-in in South Korea’s presidential election Dec. 19.
Opinion is mixed over whether the rocket launch hurts or helps Ms. Park, who’s favored to win by a narrow margin.
While the launch shows the weakness of the South Korean government in detecting it, according to one analyst, it also may convince some undecided voters of the need to continue conservative rule against the North Korean threat.
Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes the launch will inevitably delay moves toward resuming dialogue with North Korea. He also fears a strong UN resolution will only increase North Korea’s drive to conduct a third nuclear test.
“The North Koreans could use that as a pretext for a nuclear test,” says Mr. Cossa, who also is attending the Asan Institute conference. “If they’re planning on a nuclear test, they’re going to do it.”
He also believes tensions could worsen if China, under new leadership, “acts as North Korea’s defense attorney” in the United Nations. “That will put a strain,” he says. In any case, he adds, “the North Koreans will do what they want to do.”