North Korean Rocket Appears Topped With Satellite

(Apr. 1) -South Korean activists protest this week in Seoul against North Korea's planned rocket launch (Jung Yeon-je/Getty Images).
(Apr. 1) -South Korean activists protest this week in Seoul against North Korea's planned rocket launch (Jung Yeon-je/Getty Images).

New satellite images indicate that a North Korean rocket set for launch in the next few days does appear to carry a satellite, Reuters reported yesterday (see GSN, March 31).

Pyongyang has claimed that it intends only to send a communications satellite into orbit sometime between April 4 and 8, while other nations suspect the launch is intended as another test of the nation's long-range missile capability.

A Taepodong 2 missile on the launchpad at the Musudan-ri facility is tipped with a bulb-shaped object that is more likely to be a satellite than a warhead, U.S. officials determined. The Institute for Science and International Security posted the image Sunday on its Web site.

"They probably are launching a satellite. But the issue is that the steps they're going through to do that run parallel to them being able to have other capabilities," said senior ISIS analyst Paul Brannan (Morgan/Thatcher, Reuters I, March 31).

Given North Korea's lack of a sophisticated satellite program infrastructure, the intent of the test is likely to be missile-related, analysts say. They said that the bulb at the top of the rocket might be an elementary satellite or have no function other than exiting the earth's atmosphere, Reuters reported (Reuters II, March 31).

North Korea last tested the Taepodong 2 in 2006, only to see the missile fail in less than one minute. The United States and other nations say that a launch for any purpose would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution issued in the wake of the regime's 2006 missile and nuclear tests.

"Whether it is a satellite or a missile, it is still a violation of U.N. sanctions," a South Korea Foreign Ministry official told Reuters today.

"We consider this would be a breach of the resolution and thus of international law," said Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Takeshi Akamatsu.

The Japanese, South Korean and U.S. militaries are all deploying missile defense systems in the region ahead of the anticipated launch, though an intercept attempt is not expected (Jon Herskotvitz, Reuters III, April 1).

Japan reaffirmed today that it would use land- or sea-based defenses if it appeared the nation was in danger from a failing missile or rocket debris, Agence France-Presse reported.

"It is natural for us to take that stance in terms of securing people's safety," said Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura. "We are determined to take every action without allowing any mistake."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton yesterday backed Tokyo's right to ensure the nation is protected: Japan has every right to protect and defend its territory from what is clearly a missile launch that could very well be aimed at their nation" (Agence France-Presse I/, April 1).

Pyongyang has said it would abandon the six-nation negotiations on its nuclear program should it face further sanctions after the event. Today, it also threatened to to fire on U.S. reconnaissance aircraft.

"(Our army) will relentlessly shoot down U.S. reconnaissance aircraft if they intrude into our territory and meddle with our peaceful satellite launch preparation," according to a state radio broadcast picked up in South Korea (Herskotvitz, Reuters III).

The International Crisis Group yesterday warned against over-reacting to the launch.

"Even if the test is successful, it would only slightly increase security risks, while an overblown response would likely jeopardize the six-party talks to end North Korea’s nuclear program," according to the Brussels-based think tank. "What is needed is a calm, coordinated response from the key actors to raise pressure on Pyongyang to return to the talks rather than a divided reaction that only fulfills the North’s desire to widen splits among its neighbors."

"Taepodong 2 missiles involve an unproven technology and do not represent a signifi­cant increase in risk to Japan," the organization added. "The Taepodong 2 could possibly reach Alaska but the likelihood of such a strike is negligible, since the North knows it would be devastated in any response. The launch of a Taepodong 2 also takes weeks to prepare; in a time of considerable tensions the missile could be destroyed on the pad."

The international community could take a number of moderate measures, the Crisis Group said, including preparing a statement of condemnation and calling on Pyongyang to return to the nuclear talks; promoting the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, which is intended to prevent smuggling of weapons of mass destruction by North Korea and other rogue actors; and having Seoul, Tokyo and Washington offer Pyongyang a set of benefits it would receive for moving ahead with nuclear and missile disarmament (International Crisis Group release, March 31).

China and Russia, both of which have veto power on the Security Council, are likely to oppose augmenting sanctions against North Korea, which have not proved effective to date, analysts said. That is likely to enter the regime's calculus as it considers the pros and cons of the launch, AFP reported (Agence France-Presse II/, April 1).

One U.S. observer, though, warned Pyongyang against testing new President Barack Obama, AFP reported.

"The North Koreans are actually quite stupid. It's not necessarily wise to be the first country to test Obama's resolve," said Korea expert Gordon Flake, who served as an adviser to Obama during the presidential campaign.

While the White House would prefer to focus on the global economic meltdown and other crises, "the louder North Korea is and the more they make this a big issue in the six-party talks, the less political leeway the Obama administration has," Flake said.

Some analysts said that Obama's priority would be to restart the nuclear talks rather than to punish North Korea.

"The bottom line is that Washington's not going to have any choice. The last thing the Obama administration wants is another crisis on its hands, so they're going to try to purse negotiations," said American University professor Peter Beck (Agence France-Presse III, April 1).

April 1, 2009

New satellite images indicate that a North Korean rocket set for launch in the next few days does appear to carry a satellite, Reuters reported yesterday (see GSN, March 31).