North Korea’s Satellite Vow

North Korea plans to launch a satellite into orbit next month. Would the move scupper its deal with the U.S.?

The New York Times reports today North Korea’s announcement that it will launch a satellite next month as part of festivities to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The story includes immediate reaction statements from South Korea, the United States, and Japan criticizing North Korean plans for such a launch.

Despite North Korean protestations that they have an inherent right to peaceful use of space, North Korean testing of multi-stage rockets was proscribed by the United Nations in U.N. Security Council resolution 1874 that was passed following North Korea’s 2009 satellite launch and missile tests.

If the test goes ahead, it will destroy any prospect for “simultaneous moves aimed at building confidence” with the United States that North Korea had invoked in its February 29 statement announcing the return of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors in exchange for U.S. food assistance to North Korea. 

Despite North Korean appeals to the United States to change its “hostile policy,” a launch may scuttle any future prospects for non-hostility in U.S.-North Korea relations, coming on the heels of negotiations at which North Korea pledged not to conduct future missile tests.  Moreover, it directly challenges one of the rationales for supporting the Obama administration’s support of limited agreements with North Korea that such agreements serve to constrain North Korea’s provocative behavior.

North Korea attempted to make the case for its right to launch a satellite in 2009 both in advance of and following its April rocket test and continued to make that case even on the day that Kim Jong-il died, foreshadowing the likelihood of a repeat of such a launch this spring. North Korean rocket launches have historically been tied to domestic leadership events, and the renaming of Kim Jong-il’s birthdate using the name of the rocket launched in 2009 also underscored the likelihood that North Korea would pursue such a launch.

North Korea’s pursuit of a missile launch as a symbol of the consolidation of its domestic leadership will come with considerable cost. It will further weaken the international legitimacy of North Korea and strengthen its isolation. With the notable exception of China, few international observers can accept Kim Jong-un’s succession; even if it is consolidated domestically, North Korea’s dynastic succession is perceived as an anachronism. Although plans for a spring missile test were probably made last year, the test will only heighten international suspicion if the fireworks displays planned for April 15 in Pyongyang are punctuated by a North Korean missile test.

Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.