WASHINGTON -- North Korea appears to be trying to “test” the limits of its relationship with the United States by lining up a new nuclear deal and then announcing plans to launch a purported satellite into space, issue experts said on Wednesday (see GSN, today).
Officials in Pyongyang probably made the decision to conduct the anticipated rocket launch “a year ago,” prior to the death of Kim Jong Il and long before the so-called Leap Day Deal with the United States that was announced on Feb. 29, according to Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst with the RAND Corp.
In a telephone conversation with reporters, he said the North in February talks with U.S. diplomats likely hoped to win an agreement under which the launch of a satellite was not precluded.
The bilateral agreement calls for Pyongyang to receive 240,000 metric tons of U.S. food assistance in return for an International Atomic Energy Agency-monitored shutdown of specific atomic activities at the North’s Yongbyon complex and a moratorium on long-range missile and nuclear tests. Pyongyang claims launching an observation satellite into space does not violate this deal; U.S. officials disagree, believing that planned event is part of a North Korean ploy to test its long-range missile capabilities.
Evans Revere, a former principal deputy assistant of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said that newly appointed U.S. negotiator Glyn Davies told the North Koreans that a satellite launching would be a violation prior to the agreement being finalized, according to the New York Times.
The launch is due to occur sometime before Monday.
North Korean officials likely want to conduct additional launches in the future and are therefore “testing the nature of the relationship” with the United States in order to see “what kind of reaction” such moves prompt, Bennett said. The leadership would then be able to gauge how the United States might react to future actions, he added.
The United States could impose additional unilateral sanctions on North Korea or press the U.N. Security Council to take up the case if the rocket is fired. However, the Times quoted an Obama administration source as saying that further U.N. economic penalties could be off the table given the level of sanctions already loaded on the North. China, a veto-holding member of the Security Council, could also block new measures against its longtime ally (see GSN, April 3).
While Beijing has expressed displeasure over the planned rocket launch and has joined U.N. sanctions in the past, it is “unrealistic to expect China to go much further than it has in the past,” according to Andrew Scobell, a RAND senior political scientist who also spoke during Wednesday’s call.
The rocket firing is important for North Korean domestic politics, according to Bennett. Its government is eager to show that it leads a “great and prosperous” nation under newly appointed leader Kim Jong Un despite not having much evidence for such prosperity. The attempted show of strength is meant to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the current leader’s grandfather and founder of communist North Korea.
Bennett speculated that the North Korean government might claim success regardless of the outcome of the launch. A launch that goes as planned would show that Kim Jong Un is capable of realizing achievements that his father and predecessor, Kim Jong Il, was not before his death in December, he said.
North Korea in 2006 and 2009 conducted rocket launches with questionable success, though the second effort showed significant improvement. U.S. officials including former Defense Secretary Robert Gates have warned that North Korea appears to be developing longer-range missiles that within a few years could reach the United States.
Japanese and South Korean officials have indicated they are prepared to fire on the North Korean rocket or falling debris if their territories appear threatened (see GSN, March 30). Meanwhile, the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said recently the United States is prepared to counter potential ballistic missile strikes from North Korea (see GSN, April 4).
The United States, though, has a limited ability to destroy the type of booster rockets North Korea is expected to use in the satellite launch once they use up their fuel and are falling back to Earth, according to Bennett. U.S. interceptor missiles are designed primarily to destroy warheads, which he noted are significantly smaller targets than the “huge boosters” that would be at play in this case, he said.
After a hit from an interceptor, a booster rocket could be “broken up a bit but it’s still going to come down somewhere,” Bennett said.
In addition, it is unlikely that the United States or its allies would attempt to destroy the North Korean rocket on its way into the atmosphere or while it is still on the launchpad, Bennett said. Such an attempt would be seen as “extremely controversial” and could provoke Pyongyang to attack South Korea in retaliation, he said.
Scobell said any interception attempt would likely only occur if a rocket was believed to be heading toward a populated area on its way back to the ground.
North Korea appears to be trying to “test” the limits of its relationship with the United States by lining up a new nuclear deal and then announcing plans to launch a purported satellite into space, issue experts said on Wednesday.