On December 12, 2012, after 14 years of trials and failures, North Korea finally put a satellite into orbit around the Earth. The Unha-3 rocket used to deliver this payload—which was ostensibly launched for weather tracking purposes—is functionally equivalent to a ballistic missile, and South Korea was quick to note that its successful launch proves that Pyongyang can now reach targets at a distance exceeding 10,000 km (6,200 miles), putting much of the western coast of the continental United States within striking distance.
On January 22, 2013, the UN Security Council swiftly passed Resolution 2087, which condemned the launch. North Korea has since expressed its firm determination to continue pursuing its nuclear program.
Some experts warn that North Korea is only a few years away from mounting a nuclear warhead on a missile. Others doubt its technological capabilities. Indeed, less than a week after the launch of the Unha-3, U.S. astronomers pointed out that the celebrated satellite appeared to be “dead” and “tumbling” through its orbit.
Although the Unha-3 satellite itself may pose no direct threat, it is likely part of a long-term strategy to further develop Pyongyang's ballistic missile capabilities. If North Korea launches an improved Unha-3, -4 or -5 rocket later this year, could the U.S. preemptively shoot it out of the skies? Would it?
While the U.S. undoubtedly has the capacity to destroy a North Korean satellite, may it legally do so? Under international law, the answer is less than straightforward.
Pyongyang is already in breach of UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, which broadly provide that North Korea must refrain from launching ballistic missiles. Adopted unanimously in October 2006, Resolution 1718 imposed sanctions on North Korea following its nuclear test earlier that year. The Resolution states that North Korea “must not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile.” Resolution 1874, adopted unanimously in June 2009, imposed further sanctions and obligations on Pyongyang following another nuclear test in May 2009. That resolution authorizes states to inspect North Korean cargo on land, sea and air, and to destroy any goods suspected of being connected to its nuclear program.
But it’s not clear whether Resolution 1874 extends to outer space. If so, it could provide a legal basis for the U.S. to "seize and dispose of" a suspicious North Korean satellite. If not, Pyongyang may get a free pass for future space launches.