North Korea Plans Satellite Launch: Why Now?

The government led by Kim Jong Un has already attempted one launch, but plans to try again from Dec. 10 to 22

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Bobby Yip / Reuters

A soldier stands guard in front of a rocket sitting on a launchpad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang on April 8, 2012

Among the things that North Korea does that rile its neighbors, the satellite-launch attempt is emerging as a favorite of the totalitarian regime. In the year since Kim Jong Il’s death, the government led by his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, has attempted one launch and announced that it will try again from Dec. 10 to 22. North Korea is banned from such acts under U.N. Security Council resolutions put in place after its 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests, as a satellite launch is also a convenient way for Pyongyang to test its ballistic-missile capabilities. The North Korean government has tried to put a friendly face on its plan to put an earth-observation satellite into orbit, saying it “will greatly encourage the Korean people” and put its “technology for the use of space for peaceful purposes on a new, higher stage.”

The U.S. State Department called a possible launch “a highly provocative act that threatens peace and security in the region.” South Korea expressed “grave concern,” while Japan called on Pyongyang to exercise restraint and call off the launch. China, North Korea’s sole major ally, was more reserved in its criticism of the move, saying it was “concerned” about the announcement but adding that North Korea “is entitled to peaceful use of the outer space, which is subject to relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.”

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In April, just months after Kim Jong Un was installed as the country’s top leader, the North attempted to launch a satellite as part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of patriarch Kim Il Sung’s birth. The launch was a failure that Pyongyang took the rare step of acknowledging. So why try again so soon? The launch comes at a time of elections and transition at the top of almost all the governments directly involved in the dormant six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. China is undergoing a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the U.S. just held its presidential election, South Korea holds its presidential election later this month, and Japan goes to the polls on Dec. 16. North Korea, it seems, wants to remind the world it can’t be forgotten. “Our interpretation of all of this is simple,” wrote Stephan Haggard, a professor and Korea expert at the University of California, San Diego’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. “Note to the incoming administrations in the U.S., Japan, South Korea and China from the Kim Jong Un regime: Congratulations. We’re here!”

North Korea observers say regime stability is the key motivating factor in all important decisions by the government of the impoverished, isolated state. The transition following Kim Jong Il’s death was seen as a point of extreme weakness in the Kim dynasty. Kim Jong Un, the third-generation ruler believed to be in his late 20s, survived the initial transition without any clear signs of a power struggle. But in recent months reports of purges in the highest levels of the country’s military have emerged. In July, Ri Yong Ho, military chief and mentor to Kim Jong Un, was removed from office, officially because of illness. In recent weeks South Korean media have said Ri’s replacement, Kim Jong Gak, has also been ousted. Two other top military leaders have reportedly been removed or demoted, meaning every military pallbearer at Kim Jong Il’s funeral has been ousted. Amid such upheaval, a successful rocket launch would indicate a leap in the North’s ballistic-missile capabilities and confer some prestige on the leadership in Pyongyang.

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The probability of success is unknown. North Korea’s satellite-launch attempts have all ended in failure, but its rival South Korea is also facing its own spaceflight struggles, adding further incentive for Pyongyang to try again. Seoul suffered rocket failures in 2009 and 2010 and twice scratched attempts to launch its own satellite in November. North Korea has said it has “analyzed the mistakes that were made during the previous April launch and deepened the work of improving the reliability and precision of the satellite and carrier rocket,” but no one would be surprised if the next attempt fails again. “This one comes much sooner than after its other test failures,” says Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia deputy project director for the International Crisis Group, an advocacy group that seeks to prevent armed conflicts. “It raises the question of whether or not they’ve resolved the technical problems.” Without detailed technical information, no outsider could predict whether the launch could succeed, says Pinkston, “but I do have questions about it being rushed for political reasons.”

South Korea is holding its presidential election on Dec. 19, in the middle of Pyongyang’s planned launch window, raising concerns that the North could be trying to rattle its neighbor and influence the vote. But coming so soon after its last satellite launch in April, the December attempt is unlikely to significantly change the thinking among South Korean voters. “I don’t think it will affect the electorate in that for most South Korean voters their mind is made up across a whole list of other issues,” says Pinkston. “This won’t tip them one way or another. They live with North Korea all the time.”

The launch also comes amid political transition in China, where the leadership duo of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is making way for Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. Xi sent a delegation to North Korea last week bearing a letter, but the contents were not publicized. North Korea’s official news service reported that the head of the Chinese delegation, Li Jianguo, a Politburo member and vice chairman of the National People’s Congress, called the two countries “friendly neighbors linked by the same mountain and rivers.” China joined the U.N. Security Council in condemning North Korea’s April launch attempt. While China has tried to urge North Korea to call off its latest satellite plan, its reaction may be tempered by Pyongyang’s motivations, says Zhu Feng, a North Korea expert at Peking University. “If the young leader wants to use the launch to show some sort of achievement by him then Beijing may not react very forcefully,” Zhu says. “On other hand, if he wants to use this to create a new crisis and play a brinkmanship policy, that would be worse. So far Beijing doesn’t have a real explanation from the North.”

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