The Debate

North Korea’s Satellite Launch Dilemma

N. Korea’s upcoming satellite launch presents a unique challenge to its neighbors – and raises the stakes.

North Korea’s announcing its plan to pursue another satellite launch between December 10 and 22 may have been unwelcome, but it should not have been entirely unanticipated. North Korea defiantly pledged to continue to test long-range multi-stage rockets in its response to a UN Security Council Presidential statement condemning North Korea’s failed April 12 launch. Another launch will likely have a disproportionate political impact since its announcenment comes prior to national elections scheduled in Japan on December 16 and in South Korea on December 19. Here’s a rundown of the challenges a North Korean satellite launch poses during this political transition period:

South Korea—A North Korean satellite launch may influence South Korean voters in the December presidential election to base their vote more on national security credentials and the North Korean policies of the respective candidates than might have otherwise been the case. Both the ruling party conservative candidate Park Geun-hye and the opposition party progressive candidate Moon Jae-in have leaned toward reengaging North Korea. However, Moon has advocated a transformational approach involving more aggressive economic and political deal-making with North Korea, whereas Park’s position remains more cautious and conditions-based, even while seeking to unstick the dialogue failures of the Lee Myung-bak administration’s policy.

The Lee Myung-bak administration will manage the immediate response to North Korea’s satellite launch. The launch may pose an obstacle to an early opening in inter-Korean relations immediately following South Korea’s election given that the new South Korean leader’s statements responding to the launch will also set the tone in terms of how and whether the South Korean government can hold North Korea accountable for its destabilizing actions. However, the North’s test will not blunt South Korea’s desire for renewed inter-Korean dialogue as a necessary step toward stabilizing peninsular relations.

China—North Korea’s formal announcement of its intent to launch a satellite comes on the heels of People’s Republic of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee Vice Chairman Li Jianguo’s Pyongyang visit, the second meeting of a Chinese high-level official with Kim Jong-un since July of this year. Li conveyed a letter to Kim from China’s newly announced successor Xi Jinping, at which time Li reiterated China’s desire for close strategic communications between North Korean and Chinese leaders. China’s official response to North Korea’s announcement hedged by acknowledging that North Korea has a satellite launch right that is currently circumscribed by existing UN Security Council resolutions.

The need to respond to international pressure from a North Korean satellite launch could trigger a review of China’s policy options toward North Korea under its new leadership, especially given widespread international criticisms of Chinese efforts to protect North Korea from stronger international condemnation last April, as Kim Jong-un was presumably still in the midst of consolidating his political power. Given the heightened maritime tensions in the South China and East China Seas, an open confrontation between China and the United States over North Korea at the UN Security Council would be an unwelcome addition to a growing list of regional crises involving tensions between the two countries at a time when China’s leaders presumably prefer to consolidate their own leadership transition.

Japan—LDP leader Shinzo Abe took a hard line response to an earlier North Korean satellite launch in July 2006, which resulted in the first UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korean multi-stage rocket tests using ballistic missile technology. If Abe returns to the Prime Minister’s office, he may again seek to provide backbone to the international response by advocating for a strengthened UN response. Prime Minister Noda has already broken off continuation of recently-started Japan-DPRK talks in response to North Korea’s satellite launch announcement.

The United States—North Korea’s satellite launch announcement comes on the heels of a public statement by President Obama to North Korea’s leaders at the University of Yangon two weeks ago in which he called on North Korea to give up provocations and take the “extended hand” of the United States, to set aside its nuclear ambitions and join the international community. Another North Korean satellite test will show that this gesture and the April UN president’s statement have been ineffective in deterring North Korea. This circumstance will place pressure on the United States to lead a push at the UN for more effective and biting sanctions against the North.

On the other hand, the Obama administration has continuously downplayed North Korea as a political priority, and presumably does not want to drive tensions with North Korea to a crisis point. But it may not be possible to defer crisis without incurring additional costs if North Korea indeed expands its capacity to generate instability. North Korea continues to drive the situation toward a crisis that none of the new leaderships in the region truly want or can afford. The Obama administration’s course on North Korea will be consequential for the peninsula and the region.  A full-blown crisis on the peninsula would also test the administration’s pivot to Asia by demanding diplomatic attention and resources beyond currently anticipated levels.

North Korea—While North Korea has historically used provocations to drive negotiations with South Korea and the United States, satellite launches have also taken on significance as events in North Korea’s domestic politics that honor and symbolize the strength of the leadership. Given the failure of North Korea’s April launch, changes in the leadership, and the balance of power within it, a successful launch may be Kim Jong-un’s attempt to demonstrate his strength and discouraging a backlash from the military, which has had four of its leaders dismissed or demoted in recent months and has reportedly been divested of some of its authority over the economy. However, the leadership must be concerned about the loss to his credibility domestically if this second attempt at a launch were to fail again. Furthermore, regardless of the launch outcome, any attempt will create new obstacles to the country’s foreign relations, aid negotiations, and attempts to attract investment.

The need to respond effectively to North Korea’s satellite launch provides an early political test to all parties in the region in the midst of simultaneous leadership transitions among its neighbors. North Korea is raising the stakes, and we shall soon see which new leaders are willing to match Pyongyang’s bet.

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.