North Korean Rocket Launch Looms

(Apr. 3) -South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks with reporters today in London (Leon Neal/Getty Images).
(Apr. 3) -South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks with reporters today in London (Leon Neal/Getty Images).

North Korea has nearly finished arrangements for its anticipated rocket launch, which could occur tomorrow, Reuters reported (see GSN, April 2).

"I think it's almost certain North Korea will fire the missile," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said in London after participating in a global economic summit.

Pyongyang says it intends only to send a communications satellite into space, while its suspicious neighbors and the United States say the launch is likely to be a test of the Asian nation's long-range missile technology.

The rocket on the launchpad at Musudan-ri appears to be tipped with a bulbous object, indicating that it is carrying a satellite. Reports yesterday indicated that the rocket is being fueled (Herskovitz/Kim, Reuters I, April 3).

"They're doing everything consistent with the launch of a space vehicle on April 4," a U.S. defense official told Reuters (Morgan/Herskovitz, Reuters II, April 2).

North Korea has set its launch window from Saturday to Wednesday.

The launch could serve as another try-out for the Taepodong 2 missile, which is designed to reach as far as Alaska and possibly the U.S. West Coast but failed when last tested in 2006. Analysts say it could also reinforce the authority of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, who is believed to have suffered a stroke in August, and strengthen the regime's position in talks aimed at closing down its nuclear operations.

Japan, South Korea and the United States have all deployed missile defense systems in the region ahead of the launch, but they appear unlikely to fire on the rocket unless it poses a threat to their territories (Herskovitz/Kim, Reuters I).

Washington and other capitals say that a launch of any sort would violate a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution that prohibits Pyongyang from conducting ballistic missile activities. The rocket that would carry a satellite is the same as one that would deliver a warhead to its target, Reuters reported.

Tokyo would ask the Security Council to convene an emergency meeting in the wake of a rocket launch, said Japanese Ambassador to the United Nations Yukio Takasu (Morgan/Herskovitz, Reuters II).

There is some ambiguity in the matter, as Pyongyang says it is pursuing its rights under the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, which states that space "shall be free for exploration and use by all states without discrimination of any kind, the Associated press reported (Kelly Olsen, Associated Press/Washington Post, April 3).

China and Russia, which both have veto authority on the Security Council, are not likely to allow sanctions to go through, Reuters reported today.

"China has been very reluctant to put further pressure on North Korea that would in their view make the situation worse, increase the tension," said nonproliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick, of the the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"I think China would probably prevent any meaningful U.N. Security Council resolution. They might allow an anodyne one to go through that would express condemnation," he said.

That leaves Tokyo and Washington with lesser options, such as an anemic resolution or a strongly worded statement of disapproval, observers said.

"There's no way, other than a figurative slap on the wrist, that the Russians and Chinese are going to want to do very much," said Henry Sokolski, who leads the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. "It's pretty clear they're (the council) not going to do much of anything."

The Obama administration would, nonetheless, press ahead with efforts to sanction Pyongyang for violating its international obligations, one official told Reuters.

"We think it's important to send a strong, clear signal to the North Koreans, when and if they launch a missile, that they are outside the bounds of [Security Council Resolution] 1718 and that a condemnatory note is sounded by the international community," the official said. "It's also important to keep the door open to an eventual return, in the near to medium term, to a positive diplomatic track with the North Koreans" (Charbonneau/Mohammed, Reuters III, April 3).

Diplomatic sources at the United Nations told Kyodo News yesterday, though, that Tokyo and Washington did not intend to seek new sanctions. Instead, they want a resolution that would bolster existing penalties (Kyodo News, April 2).

Pyongyang has threatened to walk away from the nuclear talks if it is sanctioned again and said yesterday it would attack Japan if that nation's military tried to bring down the rocket. North Korean Mig-23 fighter aircraft have been deployed close to the east coast launch site, the Washington Post reported today.

The Stalinist state is believed to hold an arsenal of 200 Rodong missiles that could reach almost anywhere in Japan. A recent report from the International Crisis Group stated that North Korea appears to have developed nuclear warheads for the medium-range missile, though it remained unclear whether the weapon could actually be fitted to its delivery vehicle (see GSN, March 31; Blaine Harden, Washington Post, April 3).

April 3, 2009

North Korea has nearly finished arrangements for its anticipated rocket launch, which could occur tomorrow, Reuters reported (see GSN, April 2).