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Defusing a potential bomb: Pyongyang’s impending missile test/satellite launch

By Liang Nah - posted Thursday, 1 October 2015

As quoted by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se earlier this month, North Korea is likely to attempt a satellite launch on October 10th, the 70th anniversary of Pyongyang's ruling Korean Workers Party. Judging by Washington's response which stated that any launch, which contravenes United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions 1718, 1874, 2087 and 2094, will be seriously dealt with, the permanent members of the UNSC and the West in general are poised to "throw the book" at North Korea if it carries out its satellite launch.

This is because satellite carrier rockets use the same technology as ballistic missiles, and can provide performance data for long range missile development. However, given the Kim regime's mercurial nature and serious lack of regard for foreign opinions, such opprobrium is ill-advised. Instead, a more nuanced approach to dealing with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), involving working through China during the pre-launch phase and strategic restraint during the post-launch phase, could be more productive.

Using the 2009 and 2012 rocket tests as a guide


Unless the international community, with tacit acquiescence from China, is prepared to use serious coercive measures including the use of force, against North Korea in order to compel it to renounce its ballistic missiles and decommission its nuclear arms program, the only acceptable avenue of response to Pyongyang's missile and nuclear aggrandisement, is through diplomacy and sanctions enforced via UNSC Resolutions. Hence, we can see how the upcoming satellite launch/rocket test will play out by looking back at the sequence of events following the DPRK's purported satellite launch/missile test in 2009, and its successful launch of a crude satellite in late 2012.

As we now know, the event that supposedly precipitated the suspected test of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) prototype, billed as a satellite bearing rocket on 5th April 2009, was the severe stroke in the summer of 2008 of the previous North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il. Accordingly, his incapacitation caused a secession planning panic as his successor, his son Kim Jong-un, lacked leadership credentials. Arguably, the missile test was conducted to rally national pride around Pyongyang, through a demonstration of technological success, which provided a stable moral platform for Jong-un to assume leadership.

Suspecting a disguised ICBM test, the UNSC passed a statement condemning the launch. This started a vicious cycle where Pyongyang withdrew from the Six Party Talks, disavowed obligations from previous agreements, and announced the resumption of its nuclear weapons programme, which was confirmed with a second nuclear test on 25 May 2009. Parsing the missile test/satellite launching and nuclear test though the eyes of the Kim regime, it can be plausibly inferred that the reintroduction of the U.S. and UN as enemies allowed Kim and his advisors to re-focus his peoples' attention away from their economic hardships towards an external threat, providing a leadership objective for Jong-un.

Subsequently, another satellite launch/missile test was conducted on December 12th 2012, serving as a technological exhibition buttressing domestic perceptions of state power assuring national security, while shoring up Kim Jong-un's claim to leadership legitimacy in the run-up to his father's first death anniversary on 17 December 2011. As with the suspected 2009 missile test, the UNSC responded with Resolution 2087, soundly condemning Pyongyang's satellite/missile aggrandizement. Predictably, the Kim regime reacted with angry indignation, and punctuated its fury with a third nuclear detonation on February 2013.

What might happen and what can be done to stop it

If Kim Jong-un orders another satellite launch/missile test on October 10th, and if the permanent members of UNSC follow the playbook from 2009 and 2013, condemning the DPRK with another Resolution, North Korea will most probably express anger by conducting its fourth nuclear test, which if successful would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the DPRK has a functional atomic arsenal. This would be a grave setback for international nuclear non-proliferation and should be vigorously avoided.


While there is still time before Pyongyang launches its satellite/tests its missile, the U.S. and the other permanent members of the UNSC should quietly approach China to get Beijing to dissuade Pyongyang from promoting "nationalism through satellites or missiles". As China is North Korea's only remaining ally and principal economic supporter, the former must surely still wield some measure of influence over the latter.

On China's side, motivation for such action could lie in building its claim towards being a responsible great power. For the DPRK, a possible quid pro quo for rocket/missile restraint could be the resumption of U.S.-North Korean talks, if the former would agree to a resumption of negotiative communication at the ambassadorial level. This is not inconceivable as it costs nothing for Washington to talk to Pyongyang, while avoiding another North Korean crisis is comparatively priceless.

Finally, if the Kim regime still launches its satellite or tests its missile, the permanent members of the UNSC and the West at large should exercise strategic restraint and refrain from introducing any new UN resolutions condemning Pyongyang. After all, North Korea is already Asia's most censured and sanctioned state, with nothing new that fresh resolutions can penalize the DPRK with. Instead of passing another resolution to slam the DPRK, thereby giving Kim Jong-un a convenient excuse to test his fourth nuclear device, it is proposed that stricter and more rigorous enforcement of pre-existing sanctions would be more effective at making Pyongyang realize the costs of its missile and nuclear policy.

For instance, Security Council Resolution 1718 adopted on October 14th 2006 stipulates that no heavy military vehicles or weapons systems, nor the technical training, advice or assistance required to manufacture, maintain and use these equipment is to be made available to North Korea. Inasmuch as this amounts to a watertight arms embargo severely hampering Pyongyang's attempts at military modernization to keep up with the DPRK's South Korean and U.S. rivals, any and all clandestine leakages of military hardware and design blueprints/data must be conclusively plugged and eradicated.

Specifically, even though North Korea should be barred from acquiring advanced missiles, it still managed to develop domestic versions of the Russian Kh-35 Uran anti-ship missile and the OTR-21 Tochka short range ballistic missile. Stopping the transfer of design data and equipment samples which Pyongyang can reverse engineer, whether from Russia or other states should be an international priority, so that the former will realize that even if it is spared a tongue lashing by the UNSC, there is still a serious price to pay for its rocket/missile based transgressions.

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About the Author

Liang Tuang Nah is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

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