The Satellite Launch



International responses to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests have taken on a highly ritualized quality that we have tracked before: test, outrage, condemnation, test again, escalation, de-escalation and return to an ever-changing new normal. This commentary touches briefly on three issues: the relationship of the satellite test to the missile and nuclear programs; the question of North Korean motives, which appear increasingly inward-looking and solipsistic; and the perennial “what is to be done” question, centering almost entirely on what to expect of China.

The answer to the last question is more complicated than it appears. While China’s fundamental view of the situation has not changed—that resolution of the issue depends on the US and a return to the Six Party Talks—Beijing is facing some new constraints. First, it is in the embarrassing situation of having to do at least something at the UN Security Council given past resolutions that Beijing itself has shaped. And second, tolerance is declining not only for North Korea but for Chinese even-handedness, making the pursuit of secondary sanctions and even military options such as THAAD much more likely.

Satellites and Missiles

First, let’s dispense with the obvious: although nominally a “satellite launch,” the North Korean test is clearly another investment in the regime’s missile program. This observation is likely true as a matter of fact and is unambiguously true as a matter of international law.

According to the National Intelligence Service (Yonhap), the current satellite weighed about 200 kilos, double that of the satellite carried by the successful launch in December 2012. But the “earth observation” satellite launched in 2012 and nominally designed to track crop production—the so-called called Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 Unit 2—appeared to fail almost immediately and as of this writing, there is no evidence of transmission from the new satellite (despite lavish congratulations from meteorological experts in North Korea). Was there ever really a satellite to begin with?

With respect to the launch vehicle, the best early summary of what we know is from Melissa Hanham at Arms Control Wonk, replete with coverage of the domestic propaganda around the launch to which we return in a moment (the orders, Kim Jong Un signing them, the patriotic news coverage). The 2016 Kwangmyongsong launch vehicle appears from initial comparisons to be broadly similar to the Unha-3, although more will be known from recovery of the early stage debris as was done in 2012.

Whether this way of developing an ICBM capability is efficient is another question. The liabilities of the current effort are long and detailed by both John Shilling in a recent post at 38North and Jeffrey Lewis in his classic primer of a year ago on the what he calls “the great miniaturization debate,” also at 38North. The current engines probably do not have adequate thrust to deliver a warhead; the capacity to adequately miniaturize a weapon remains in doubt; and accuracy is more of a challenge as ranges lengthen. Above all, neither intermediate nor intercontinental missiles capable of carrying a serious payload have been flight tested, leaving doubts about their capacity to survive in-flight turbulence and re-entry. Moreover, the space launch vehicles are fixed above ground and too large to be made mobile; they are at least in theory highly vulnerable to pre-emption.

Nonetheless, missile development is a learning process, and not for the North Koreans alone. In a little-noticed action last month, Treasury announced new sanctions on eleven Iranian entities and individuals associated with that country‘s ballistic missile program. However, two of them were explicitly singled out as cooperating with the North Koreans on booster rocket technology.

North Korea has repeatedly asserted its right to the peaceful use of space and has done so again. From a legal perspective UNSC 1874 closed down North Korean arguments in this regard. The resolution:

2.   Demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or any launch using ballistic missile technology;

3.    Decides that the DPRK shall suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme and in this context re-establish its pre-existing commitments to a moratorium on missile launches.”

These demands and decision clearly have not influenced North Korean behavior, but they do place constraints on China’s freedom of maneuver. How long can Beijing call for calm in the face of blatant violations of UN Security Council resolutions that it had an important role in shaping?


There was nothing obvious in the international setting that anticipated the January nuclear test or the satellite launch. The tests did not respond to any obvious provocation on the part of South Korea or the US. Except in 2006, tests have not proven a successful means for North Korea to secure negotiations, compromises or rewards; to the contrary, such tests have routinely generated new sanctions and approbation.

I am thus increasingly skeptical of interpretations that see these tests as part of some complex strategic dance designed to get international attention. To what end exactly? The alternative: that nuclear weapons and the missile program are seen as permanent features not only of North Korea’s grand strategy—as the byungjin line openly states—but of Kim Jong Un’s domestic messaging as well.

Evidence in support of this interpretation abounds, including the attention given to Kim Jong Un’s and the Party’s role in directing the launch, in the connection of the test to the DPRK’s technological advance, and above all in the recurrent trope of standing up to the American imperialists. After the Moranbong Band's show, with the 2012 satellite launch in the background, my favorite piece of propaganda is the postcard below, which makes the point: "don't recklessly go berserk; wipe America off the face of the earth." In the run-up to the 7th Party Congress this summer, expect more nuclear and missile propaganda, not less; the National Intelligence Service is already briefing Korean lawmakers on the possibility of a fifth nuclear test

North Korea missile to US photo_2-8-16

What Is to be Done?

Virtually every Korea watcher we know has weighed in on the test in some venue or another; a useful sampler of opinion can be found in one place at PacNet Newsletter. But the debate actually rotates on a surprisingly narrow axis. Is there any hope of getting China to do anything through diplomacy or is the only route to Beijing through its stomach: by raising the costs of inaction?

Despite my deep skepticism about how far China is willing to go to “deliver” Pyongyang, it is too early to prejudge the outcome of the negotiations in New York. China signed on to strong UNSC statements at the time of both the nuclear test and satellite launch that reflect its own prior commitments. The statement following the missile test—of necessity a consensus document—shows the bind that China is in:

The members of the Security Council restated their intent to develop significant measures in a new Security Council resolution in response to the nuclear test conducted by the DPRK on January 6, 2016, in grave violation of the DPRK's international obligations.

The members of the Security Council also recalled that they have previously expressed their determination to take “further significant measures” in the event of another DPRK launch.  In line with this commitment and the gravity of this most recent violation, the members of the Security Council will adopt expeditiously a new Security Council resolution with such measures in response to these dangerous and serious violations.

South Korea has also been particularly dogged on the point this time around. A succession of high-ranking South Korean officials—Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn; Deputy Chief of the Office of National Security at the Blue House Cho Tae-yong and spokesmen for both the Ministry of Unification and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs promised that the North would experience “serious consequences.” But as Dan Pinkston pointed out to me—and the South Korean press subsequently confirmed—this statement was modified by the clause “from the international community.” The benefits of President Park’s diplomatic strategy toward China are increasingly coming under challenge; what has Beijing actually done to ameliorate the situation?

As usual, China is doing everything in its power to lower expectations and to shift responsibility back to the US. Virtually all of China’s long-standing arguments about why it cannot lead on this issue have been on display (the following draws on the MOFA spokesman's remarks since the nuclear test):

  • Special Representative Wu Dawei was not insulted on his recent visit to Pyongyang by the announcement on the very day he arrived that the North Koreans would test; his visit was “in itself, a very serious diplomatic endeavor by the Chinese side.”
  • The nuclear and missile tests since 2008 have been entirely due to the stance of the US (“During the stalemate of the Six-Party Talks, in response to relevant countries' constant outcry for pressure and sanctions, the DPRK started nuclear test and conducted it over and over again. In this sense, the DPRK did slap the relevant country across the face. As for whose face did the DPRK slap, the country itself knows well.”)
  • China conceives the Six Party Talks as the appropriate venue for pursuing denuclearization, as do I; at some point, the negotiations simply have to resume. But China takes a fundamentally passive role, encouraging “all parties concerned to reach [the] aforementioned consensus [contained in the September 2005 joint statement].” This effort has failed for “some well-known reasons which have nothing to do with China....” (see also Xinhua).
  • Not only is China opposed to any unilateral sanctions—relying on its veto at the Security Council to shape the multilateral effort—but it is opposed to any other form of pressure on North Korea as well; indeed, Beijing has come close to offering a virtual security guarantee to the Kim dynasty, with all of the moral hazard problems such a guarantee implies (“As a close neighbor of the Korean Peninsula, we will by no means allow war or instability on the Peninsula.”)

This time, however, the political alignment in the US is trending against a continuation of strategic patience in its current form. Those arguing for a return to negotiations seem to be living in a parallel universe from where elite political opinion is now trending. In the Republican debate over the weekend, Jeb Bush—among the more sober candidates with respect to foreign policy and living under the shadow of his brother’s invasion of Iraq—openly pondered a pre-emptive strike.

Concrete actions are likely to move along two fronts. The first quickly caught the attention of China's foreign ministry, which issued formal representations over the issue: the decision by the US and the ROK to open formal negotiations on the deployment of THAAD. The second line of action will be a theme of several posts this week: the pursuit of secondary sanctions, which China also vociferously opposes. It is likely that the response to these actions in Beijing will parallel the response to them in Pyongyang: to hunker down and pull in the horns. But at least the actions might clarify the differences: that the United States and South Korea are going to protect themselves regardless of what Beijing thinks. If the regime is currently committed to keeping its nuclear weapons and missile programs, it is not clear what negotiations would even look like. Negotiations on what exactly?

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