North Korea on Tuesday announced that it had made ready to fire a long-range rocket into space, rejecting claims that the satellite launch would be cover for a new ballistic missile test, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, April 9).
Space Development Department Deputy Director Ryu Kum Chol at a news briefing in Pyongyang said the Earth-observation satellite was undergoing fitting to the Unha 3 rocket on Tuesday. "All the assembly and preparations of the satellite launch are done," he said.
Outside specialists think the Unha 3 rocket is a modified version of the North's Taepodong 2 long-range ballistic missile, which is last assumed to have been tested in spring 2009. Pyongyang is understood to be advancing its ballistic missile development though it is not yet thought to have developed nuclear weapons small enough to be carried by missiles.
Ryu admitted there was a resemblance between the Unha 3 and a ballistic missile but said the satellite-carrying rocket would use liquid fuel rather than the solid fuel employed to power ballistic missiles. He also said the rocket lacked the capacity to carry heavy explosives.
"Our satellite weighs 100 kilograms. For a weapon, a 100-kilogram payload wouldn't be very effective," Ryu said, rejecting as "nonsense" international worries that the launch would be used as a ballistic missile test.
"The launch of the Kwangmyongsong 3 satellite is the gift from our people to our great leader, comrade Kim Il Sung, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, so this cannot be a missile test," Ryu was quoted by Reuters as saying. Kim Il Sung is North Korea's regime founder and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong Un (Maxim Duncan, Reuters I, April 10).
In a telephone conversation on Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin agreed that the looming rocket launch would be a "serious provocation and a violation of North Koreas' international obligations and standing U.N. Security Council resolutions," according to Defense Department spokesman George Little.
The Obama administration renewed its urging of China to press North Korea to abandon all "provocative actions," Reuters reported. Beijing is Pyongyang's top economic benefactor and is thought to have the greatest influence on the Stalinist regime (Tabassum Zakaria, Reuters II, April 9).
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice in a Monday interview with CNN said the Security Council would probably become involved should Pyongyang carry out the satellite firing, Agence France-Presse reported.
"I anticipate the council would convene to discuss this and to respond in a credible fashion, both to the missile launch and to any potential additional subsequent actions," said the senior U.S. diplomat, who this month holds the Security Council presidency.
Rice warned Pyongyang that were it to "move beyond such provocative steps as a missile launch to a nuclear test, obviously their isolation will only increase" (Agence France-Presse/Channel News Asia, April 10).
Russia on Tuesday renewed its opposition to the rocket launch, RIA Novosti reported.
"We consider the decision by Pyongyang to carry out a launch of the satellite as an example of disregard for U.N .resolutions," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said. "A way out of the situation should be found by political and diplomatic methods" (RIA Novosti, April 10).
South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Byung-jae on Tuesday said the Security Council would move to take action following a rocket launch by the North, the Yonhap News Agency reported.
"From the perspective of the U.N., North Korea's launch of a long-range missile at this time is a clear breach of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874," Cho said.
"If the long-range missile launch takes place as announced, I think it is certain the issue will be discussed by the U.N. Security Council," he said.
The spokesman would not comment on the type of action the Security Council might take against Pyongyang.
Central to any punishment of North Korea would be the acquiescence of China, which holds veto power over Security Council resolutions. While the Chinese government has taken the rare step of publicly voicing displeasure with the anticipated rocket launch, not many observers anticipate Beijing would condone a strong Security Council response (Yonhap News Agency, April 10).
"China has pressured North Korea to abandon (the launch) because it adds new variables and gives the United States an excuse to return to Asia," an anonymous insider connected to Beijing's senior leadership said to Reuters.
"China does not want to see this because Beijing and Shanghai are within range" of the North's ballistic weapons, the source said.
A number of observers think the Asian power could do more to strong-arm Pyongyang into canceling the launch. Beijing, however, is nervous the withdrawal of foreign assistance from the impoverished North could lead to a collapse of the Kim Jong Un regime, which would have serious repercussions for China's own internal affairs.
"The worst-case scenario troubling Beijing is the prospect of a democratic, capitalist South Korea reunifying the whole peninsula," South Korean political pundit Shim Jae-hoon said. "China thinks this will bring U.S. military presence close to its border."
It is to the benefit of both China and North Korea to assert that Beijing does not hold much sway over Pyongyang, according to Reuters.
"The question is not if China does or doesn't have leverage to pressure Pyongyang," Shim said. "The question is whether it wants to exercise that pressure. Any sign of displeasure shown by China at this time will not fail to have an impact on Kim Jong Un."
Kim Jong Un assumed leadership of the Stalinist state after his father, Kim Jong Il, died in December. The looming rocket launch is thought to be partly aimed at enhancing his domestic standing by showing he is a decisive commander who can continue the militaristic policies of his father and grandfather (Benjamin Lim, Reuters III, April 10).
The White House on Monday rebutted criticisms of its decision to strike a deal with Pyongyang to supply the North with a quantity of food assistance, the Washington Post reported.
The bilateral deal would have supplied North Korea with 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid in return for its monitored shutdown of uranium enrichment at the Yongbyon nuclear complex and a moratorium on new long-range missile and atomic tests. The agreement for a time raised hopes that long-stalled negotiations aimed at permanently ending North Korea's nuclear weapons ambitions could be relaunched.
However, Pyongyang's rocket plans threw cold water on prospects for the resumption of the six-nation talks that encompass China, Japan, the two Koreas, Russia, and the United States.
"There's a lot of 'shoulda, coulda woulda' now from outsiders," an anonymous high-ranking Obama official said. "But the fact is that we went into this very carefully with a specific purpose in mind."
Former Bush administration North Korea policy expert Victor Cha acknowledged that "any administration could have had trouble with this, but I think there's legitimate worry that this is now all going to literally blow up in their faces. Obama could be seen as the guy who tried engagement and ended up getting more missile tests and nuke tests under his watch than [Former President George W.] Bush."
American Enterprise Institute Asia analyst Michael Auslin accused the White House of having "jumped in with eyes wide shut."
"Now you not only have a crisis with the rocket launch but a diplomatic failure that sets the tone for the next decade with this new young leader in North Korea, who on his very first attempt to tweak the lion's tail may only see that he can get away with it," he said in an interview.
Unidentified Obama administration officials told the Post that U.S. negotiators in the February negotiations for the deal emphasized clearly that Pyongyang should not try sending any objects into space.
"We made a specific point of laying out (that) any sort of space launch would be a deal-breaker," one high-ranking Obama official said. "We know they heard it too because they repeated it back to us."
Administration officials denied recent news reports that Washington was warned prior to the announcement of the food aid deal of Pyongyang's plans to launch the Unha 3 rocket this month.
The United States announced last month that in light of the impending rocket launch, it was canceling plans to send food assistance to North Korea (Wan/Harlan, Washington Post, April 10).
"It is impossible to imagine we would be able to follow through with and provide nutritional assistance we have planned on providing, given what would be a flagrant violation of North Korea's basic international obligations," Reuters quoted White House spokesman Jay Carney as saying on Tuesday (Steve Holland, Reuters III, April 10).
A foreign minister-level meeting this week in Washington of the Group of Eight leading industrial nations is anticipated to examine the launch plans, Kyodo News reported.
Ahead of the G-8 meeting, Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba is slated on Tuesday to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss North Korea and other bilateral security issues (Kyodo News/Mainichi Daily News, April 10).
Tokyo has deployed Patriot missiles and Aegis-equipped warships that would attempt to shoot down North Korea's rocket should the government conclude it threatens Japanese territory.
Some specialists, though, do not think the missile defense precautions are necessary or useful, the Japan Times reported.
"The rocket's proposed trajectory does not pose any risk to Japan if all goes as planned," Japanese military expert Motoaki Kamiura told the newspaper. "Even if something does go wrong and pieces of the rocket start plunging toward the country, we are talking about debris that will fall from the sky randomly. No country in the world has a defense system capable of intercepting such debris" (Jun Hongo, Japan Times, April 10).
North Korea on Tuesday announced that it had made ready to fire a long-range rocket into space, rejecting claims that the satellite launch would be cover for a new ballistic missile test, the Associated Press reported.