Just when we thought things were cooling down on the Korean peninsula, North Korea has raised the temperature again. They haven’t detonated a nuclear device, in fact plans for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to return are unchanged. But on March 16, North Korea announced it would launch a satellite into orbit to commemorate the 100th birthday of its deceased founder Kim Il-Sung. Plans for the mid-April launch have brought back memories of 2009, when a nuclear test followed a similar launch. The presumption is that the payload is not the significant part of the launch; it’s the rocket’s ability to deliver nuclear devastation. Until and unless we can be certain that North Korea has ended its nuclear weapons development, these launches can only increase regional tension, make dialogue more difficult, and strengthen the case for advocates of continued U.S.-South Korean military cooperation.
The biggest problem in assessing the situation is that the infrequency of such launches makes it hard to take North Korea’s space program seriously. North Korea claims to have put two satellites into orbit: one in 1988, one in 2009. Western observers dispute the success of either launch.
We know from our own history that there is a relationship between military rocketry and space exploration. German scientists like Wernher von Braun applied their experience in the German V2 missile program to developing rockets that could either launch a satellite into orbit or a nuclear warhead into Moscow. This is the source of our concern; we know that the guidance technology used to achieve orbit and, for manned flights, re-entry can be applied to obtaining military targets as well. We also know that developing rockets capable of boosting heavier payloads into higher orbits is simultaneously developing warhead delivery systems with a greater range. The rocket North Korea used in its 2009 launch, for example, had the potential of delivering a nuclear warhead to the California coast.
North Korea seems to have two faces. On the one hand, there’s the North Korea that struck an agreement with the U.S. to cease enriched uranium testing in return for resumed distributions of food. Then there’s the North Korea that revives memories of its ICBM and nuclear weapons testing days by announcing this launch. Some observers say that it’s evidence of warring factions within the country. Whatever is going on in Pyongyang, this two-faced behavior is giving the U.S. an opportunity to re-establish military alliances in the region as far away as the Philippines. It’s an opportunity worth pursuing, and at the same time it illustrates why we can’t afford to let down our guard on the peninsula itself.
There’s nothing wrong or evil about the peaceful exploration of space. But North Korea continues to display behavior that smacks of ulterior motives. Granted, Kim Il-Sung’s centenary wasn’t going to wait, and it’s understandable that new leader Kim Jong-Un would think some momentous tribute was necessary. Why couldn’t it have been something that would commemorate the founder’s memory by continuing the path towards peace and stability, like announcing a plan to distribute the U.S. food supplies to his people, announcing the intention to negotiate a formal armistice with South Korea followed by a normalization of relations, or renouncing nuclear weapons development and welcoming the IAEA inspectors? Maybe these measures wouldn’t conform with Kim Il-Sung’s policies. But they would go a long way towards giving Kim Jong-Un his own legacy as a man of peace who sought to re-invent North Korea as a responsible world citizen.