North Korea Shows No Sign of Canceling Long-Range Rocket Launch

Japanese military troops on work last week on a Patriot air-defense battery fielded in Tokyo as a possible defense against a long-range North Korean rocket set to be launched by Monday (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye).
Japanese military troops on work last week on a Patriot air-defense battery fielded in Tokyo as a possible defense against a long-range North Korean rocket set to be launched by Monday (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye).

North Korea on Thursday gave no indication that it would bow to international pressure and call off its planned firing of a long-range rocket into space, the Associated Press reported (see GSN, April 11).

Pyongyang passed on its first time period for its declared plan to send an observation satellite into orbit. The stated window for a launch lasts through Monday. North Korean space program officials would not disclose to foreign journalists on Wednesday the specific timing of the launch.

The United States and allied Asian states view the imminent event as a cover for another long-range ballistic missile test, which would be prohibited under U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Less-than-optimal meteorological conditions were the likely reason the rocket was not fired on Thursday, according to Philippine disaster readiness agency head Benito Ramos, who was informed of U.S. and Japanese military assessments on the matter (Jean Lee, Associated Press/Google News, April 12).

Weather conditions are likely to be a major factor in the timing of the launch. Korea Metrological Administration specialist Cho Nam-san told the Yonhap News agency that an overcast sky with low winds is forecasted in the region of the launch facility to Sunday, with rains predicted on Monday.

A number of experts think the launch could take place on Saturday, the day before long-planned national commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the birth of of regime founder Kim Il Sung (Yonhap News Agency, April 12).

The Obama administration intends to penalize North Korea should it go through with the rocket firing by canceling planned food assistance to the impoverished nation and by urging the international community to condemn the launch, an anonymous U.S. official told the New York Times.

Washington would not press for new Security Council sanctions as financial penalties on the North are already quite stringent, the source said. The United States also wishes to maintain the goodwill of Russia and China, whose support will be needed if new council resolutions are to be passed against Iran and Syria, the official added. A probable outcome is that the council would issue a presidential statement rebuking Pyongyang (Landler/Perlez, New York Times, April 11).

The vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. James Winnefeld, said the nightmare outcome would be if the imminent rocket firing is in fact "not a space launch" but a missile strike on the United States, the Washington Times reported.

Winnefeld told a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum he thought this scenario was highly unlikely.
 
"We’re certainly going to monitor it. We’ve not increased force levels, but it’s certainly something that we’re going to monitor," an unidentified military official said on Thursday (Kristina Wong, Washington Times, April 12).
 
Washington and Pyongyang in late February announced a deal that would see the North shut down uranium enrichment and other atomic activities at the Yongbyon complex and refrain from conducting new nuclear and long-range missile tests in return for 240,000 metric tons of U.S. nutritional assistance. The bilateral deal for a brief period raised hopes that a long-stalled multinational process aimed at North Korean denuclearization could be relaunched, the Times reported.

That optimism was dashed when the North last month announced its intention to launch the Unha 3 rocket. The Obama administration subsequently said it would suspend plans for the food aid.

"North Korea should stop engaging in these types of provocative and destabilizing actions. We’d like to see nations that have close relations with North Korea consider what else they could do to send a clear signal to this new leadership that it’s time for them to move in a different direction," said White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor.

China is seen to have the most influence over North Korea. U.S. President Obama urged his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, during a two-way meeting in Seoul late last month to do more to press North Korea on the launch.

The White House has defended the evidently dead-in-the-water February deal, pointing out that Pyongyang never received any concessions before it broke the terms of the agreement. The Obama official said Washington anticipates the Stalinist state will adhere to the other requirements of the agreement if it wishes to keep open the door to further dialogue.

Obama officials have had to deal with insinuations that U.S. negotiators were hoodwinked or that the administration failed to give a clear signal to Pyongyang during talks in February that a rocket firing would violate the terms of the deal.

Ex-State Department East Asia specialist Evans Revere defended the U.S. negotiators, including special envoy Glyn Davies. "Administration officials have told me that the D.P.R.K. side understood clearly and accepted the U.S. position that a satellite launch would be violation of the Feb. 29 agreement's ban on long-range missile tests," he said.

Revere said he learned from North Korean sources in December of plans for the rocket launch. The former U.S. diplomat delivered the news to the administration prior to the Beijing talks that resulted in the nuclear shutdown-for-food aid agreement.

It could be that First Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan was not aware of military plans to launch the satellite when he led the North Korean side in the Beijing negotiations, an informed Asian envoy said.

Some issue experts have questioned why the U.S. negotiators failed to secure in writing the agreed-upon terms of the deal or at least delayed announcing the development to see whether Pyongyang would proceed with the satellite firing.

"This seems to have been a strategic error that has left the administration with an unpalatable choice of denouncing or only partially enforcing an agreement it recently hailed," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Asia program director Douglas Paal said.

Experts are sympathetic to the tough position the White House is in, though some have wondered whether domestic political considerations inside China, South Korea and the United States have caused the nations to ease their focus on the North.

"Did the administration give a huge amount of aid and get sucker punched? No. But the strategic context matters. Since the beginning of 2011, we have visibly been less urgent about North Korea," Center for Strategic and International Studies Asia analyst Michael Green told the Times (Landler/Perlez, New York Times).

"Both sides really wanted an agreement for their own reasons. But the agreement has turned out to be a fiasco," U.S. News & World Report. quoted RAND Corp. analyst Andrew Scobell as saying. "Both the United States and North Korea has some egg on its face here" (John Bennett, U.S. News & World Report, April 11).

The government-managed Korean Central News Agency published an editorial that said regime leader Kim Jong Un did not think the rocket launch would breach the terms of the U.S. deal, the Washington Post reported.

"The North Koreans are of the firm view that a Cold Warrior mindset has misled the Americans to mistake the launch of an observation satellite for that of a ballistic missile test," according to the editorial (Chico Harlan, Washington Post, April 12).

Foreign policy chiefs of the Group of Eight industrially advanced nations in talks on Wednesday agreed the looming rocket launch would constitute a "clear violation" of Security Council rules, Kyodo News reported.

"It violates multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions," said U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who led the Washington meeting.

Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba called for the Security Council to take up the matter should North Korea go through with the launch.

"North Korea's missile development is a real threat to regional peace and stability and it cannot be accepted," Gemba was quoted by officials to have said at the G-8 meeting (Kyodo News, April 11).

The Japanese government on Wednesday established a special working group to organize responses to the rocket launch and law enforcement authorities prepared to react to any fallout from debris landing in Okinawa Prefecture, Kyodo reported.

The National Police Agency said it has sent to Miyako and Ishigaki islands police forces specially trained in responding to biological, chemical and nuclear attacks.

"We will cooperate with partner countries to call on North Korea to forgo any action that will damage peace and stability in the region, and keep urging (the North) until the last minute to stop the launch," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told reporters (Kyodo News II, April 11).

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said "we want to be fully prepared for any possible contingency," Agence France-Presse reported.

The Philippines has taken the step of directing airplanes to change their flight paths so they are not near any falling components from the rocket, air traffic control chief Michael Mapanao said (Agence France-Presse I/Spacewar.com, April 12).

Elsewhere, the Japanese magazine Shukan Bunshun posted excerpts of what it claimed was recently deceased North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's will, AFP reported.

Kim purportedly called on North Korea to further its work on weapons of mass destruction. "Keep in mind that constantly developing and keeping nuclear (weapons), long-rang missiles and biochemical weapons is the way to keep peace on the Korean Peninsula and never drop your guard."

The magazine said the will was supplied by the head of a prominent South Korean think-tank, who said he received it from a North Korea defector with close ties to senior regime officials (Agence France-Presse II/Straits Times, April 12).

Officials in the United States have also said they see signs that Pyongyang is developing a new ballistic missile that is substantially larger than previous generations. Recent news articles said a U.S. spy satellite took pictures of this possible new missile at a facility in the North Korean capital. It is not known though, whether the missile in the images represents a working model or a mockup. There is the possibility the regime could display the missile at military parades scheduled for April 15 and 25, Foreign Policy magazine reported.

The new missile is thought to be designed to carry larger warheads for greater distances, which would be a key feature for a credible North Korean strategic deterrent as the aspiring nuclear power is not believed to have the ability to miniaturize nuclear bombs (Nick Hansen, Foreign Policy, April 11).

Retired U.S. Gen. Walter Sharp, former commander of forces in South Korea, said he thinks North Korea's aim with the rocket launch is to advance its efforts to create a ballistic missile with the ability to reach as far as Alaska and Hawaii, U.S. News & World Report reported. Other U.S. officials, including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have also warned of the North's potential to develop ballistic missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory (Bennett, U.S. News & World Report).

April 12, 2012
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North Korea on Thursday gave no indication that it would bow to international pressure and call off its planned firing of a long-range rocket into space, the Associated Press reported.