North Korea’s Rocket Launch Alters Diplomatic Playing Field


North Korea’s successful launch of a satellite last December has altered the diplomatic situation. Suzuki Kazuto, a professor at Hokkaidō University, ponders the changes likely to arise and the actions Japan might take in response.

On December 12, 2012, North Korea suddenly launched an Unha-3 rocket carrying a satellite, despite speculation up to the last minute that the launch would be postponed due to technical problems. This launch proved that the country has the capability to fire an object into space.

This action violated United Nation Security Council Resolution 1874, which demands that North Korea “not conduct any further . . . launch using ballistic missile technology.” Pyongyang pushed ahead with this launch despite the protests of Japan, the United States, and South Korea, and even words of warning from China.

Reasons for the Launch

We need to consider the reasons why North Korea decided to go ahead with this operation in the face of opposition from the international community, including China, on which it is heavily economically dependent.

Politically speaking, North Korea yearned for a successful missile launch in 2012 as a symbol of its status as a “strong and prosperous nation,” particularly following the failed launch of a similar rocket in April that same year. Another aim was to use a successful launch to enhance the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un, who has yet to consolidate his power as the new North Korean leader.

The price North Korea will pay for the launch is even stricter sanctions levied by the international community, putting the country’s domestic economy into even more distress. The North Koreans decided to press ahead with their plans anyway because rocket technology is synonymous with ballistic missile technology. That is to say, the nation’s launch of a rocket whose range is estimated at 10,000 kilometers achieved the military goal of demonstrating its ability to reach the mainland of the United States with a missile.

High Level of Technical Prowess

The rocket test showed that North Korea has quite advanced capabilities. Typically, in the case of a country’s first satellite, the priority is simply on getting it into orbit. To improve the chance of success, the payload is launched in an easterly direction, which is comparatively easier, and no fixed orbit is designated.

The North Koreans, however, succeeded in a “sun-synchronous orbit” following a trajectory stretching from the North to the South Pole. A great deal of precision is needed to put a satellite into this orbit; it requires the rocket to be launched in a southerly direction, and after the first- and second-stage engines are discarded, a sharp, “dog-leg” turn must be made to position the rocket on an orbit with an inclination between 97 and 99 degrees.

The launch shows that the North Korean is close to the capabilities that many advanced nations possess, and that if its rocket technology is converted to military use, the country could also come to have a highly accurate ballistic missile capability.

However, unlike a satellite-launching rocket, which only has to deliver its payload into space, a missile has to reenter the atmosphere in order to hit its target on land. This requires technologies that the North Koreans do not yet possess, such as heat-resistant panels and payload controls. In this sense, the launch of a rocket cannot be considered completely equivalent to successfully testing a missile.

The satellite launched in December (like the one for the failed launch in April) is believed to weigh around 100 kilograms. North Korea does not have the capability yet to reduce the weight of its missile warheads to that range. If the North Koreans can manage to master the reentry technology, and succeed in reducing the size of the missile’s payload, they will have achieved a nuclear missile capability. This would make the country a military threat to more than just its neighboring countries, with the ability to reach as far as the United States. With its successful December 2012 operation, North Korea has overcome a major barrier standing in the way of that goal.

Launch Impacts the US Negotiating Stance

The December rocket launch, in demonstrating the North Korean missile capability, did not necessarily greatly raise the threat level impacting Japan and East Asian countries. This is because North Korea’s mid-range missile capability of 1,300 kilometers is already a threat to East Asia—setting aside the question of whether a missile can be armed with a nuclear warhead.

The launch, however, greatly raises the threat toward the United States, which is now within range of a North Korean rocket. This may change the context of the Six Party Talks and of bilateral talks between the United States and North Korea. It may also require the Americans to shift their policy toward North Korea to focus more on dealing with this military threat.

This new situation gives North Korea a greater bargaining chip to extract major concessions in return for abandoning its nuclear tests and missile technology. It also raises the possibility of increased military tension in East Asia resulting from sanctions against North Korea or military actions in the region. This new reality will pose problems for Japanese diplomacy and may lower the priority placed on the issue of the Japanese nationals abducted by the North Korean regime.

The December launch also raises the military threat posed to South Korea, which has lagged behind North Korea in rocket development up to now and is now being left even further behind. This will raise the pressure on Seoul to succeed at all costs in launching its Naro rocket (formerly known as the KSLV-1), which has failed in the previous two launches.

The Naro was developed with technical assistance from Russia; the first-stage rocket was developed by Russia and the second-stage rocket by South Korea. The third launch was scheduled for October 2012, but it has been postponed twice because of technical problems. The launch is now scheduled for the spring of 2013 and failure is not an option—especially now that a new South Korean government will soon be taking office.(*1)

What Should Japan’s Response Be?

North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile technology development to date have resulted in long-term economic sanctions and severe restrictions placed by Japan on trade and the transfer of funds. Trade between the two countries has continued to hover around the zero mark, though, which means that there is little more that Japan can do on its own.

The sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council have been ineffective due to a failure to strictly implement them. China and South Korea have continued to trade with North Korea, and in 2007 the administration of President George W. Bush lifted the freeze on North Korean assets in Banco Delta Asia in return for promises of more progress on the nuclear issue.

The UN Security Council convened after the recent rocket launch to discuss strengthening the sanctions on North Korea, but with China brandishing the right of veto it was seen as difficult to adopt a resolution toward that end.

Given this state of affairs, it will not be easy to halt the North Korean actions. Moreover, if the country succeeds in its nuclear tests, the international community will be focused on those weapons rather than the rocket/missile technology, likely making it more difficult to halt the development of delivery systems. In other words, the response taken toward North Korea will have to be premised on the fact that it has the capability to threaten the United States.

Japan has already enhanced the accuracy of its missile-defense system as a response to its location within range of North Korea’s medium-range missiles. Japan will need to enhance its capabilities for responding to a range of situations, such as by launching its own early-warning satellite to detect a missile launch and beefing up its intelligence-gathering ability—including not just imagery intelligence from information-gathering satellites but also communication, signaling, and human-intelligence capabilities.

Now that both South Korea and Japan have new governments committed to strengthening their respective alliances with the United States, the political conditions are in place for enhancing the three nations’ missile-defense systems. The alliance between those two new governments and the second-term administration of President Barack Obama will likely be the key to future policies regarding North Korea.

(Originally written in Japanese on December 25, 2012.)

(*1) ^ South Korea successfully launched the Naro on Jan. 30, 2013.—Ed.

diplomacy United Nations Japan United States politics North Korea Kim Jong-un South Korea rocket ballistic missile