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December 11, 2012

Bracing for another long-range rocket test by North Korea

By Beth Duff-Brown and Sarah Bhatia

A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of Pyongyang on April 8, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

North Korea's recent announcement that it will attempt to launch a long-range rocket in coming days has prompted worldwide consternation.

Japan threatened to shoot down the rocket, the United States is moving warships into the region and South Korea is considering further sanctions against the North.  

Pyongyang insists it has a right to pursue a peaceful space program and that the rocket is carrying nothing more than a communications satellite it hopes to put into orbit.

Three Stanford experts on North Korea agreed to share their views on the upcoming launch.

David Straub is an associate director of the Korean Studies Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center; Thomas Fingar is an international intelligence expert and a distinguished fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; and Nick Hansen is an affiliate at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and an expert in foreign weapons and imagery intelligence who writes for Jane's Defense and

Why is North Korea planning to test what it claims is a satellite, and is there any significance to the Dec. 10-29 launch window?

Straub: North Korea has tested four long-range rockets since 1998 and none has been fully successful, including the most recent test on April 12. Although Pyongyang claims that some of these tests were intended to launch satellites for peaceful purposes, the rocket technology is dangerously close to long-range missile technology and the United Nations Security Council has issued several resolutions and forbidden North Korea from conducting any further tests.

The media are full of speculation about why North Korea has announced this particular window of dates, such as that it means to send a message to the Obama administration or to influence the upcoming South Korean presidential election on Dec. 19.  My own guess is that it is keyed to the first anniversary Kim Jong Il's death on Dec. 17.

But in the end, the most important question is why the North Koreans are conducting the test. It is fundamentally because they have a long-standing missile program to which they have devoted a great deal of resources. If the leadership had devoted those resources to taking care of its citizens, it could have bought enough food on the global market to prevent hunger, instead of calling on the international community for assistance.

The North Koreans typically pick the spring or summer to test their rockets. Why launch now amid constraining winter weather?

Hansen: The timing is purely political. The reasons they prefer to launch in the spring and summer are, of course, better weather conditions and longer days to work on the pad. But the anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Il, the presidential elections in South Korea, beating the South to a satellite launch or putting the DPRK back in the international spotlight – these could all have driven the decision.

North Korea may be following the same script they used for the April 12 Unha-3 launch. If they continue at the April pace, the rocket should be completely stacked on the pad on Dec. 7 in order to be checked out on the 8th and 9th and be ready to launch on the 10th, which is the first day of the launch window. This is a tight schedule with little room for technical problems or weather delays, which could account for the 12-day window. (The North's Korean Central News Agency announced Dec. 10 that the launch window has been extended to Dec. 29.)

Fingar: The timing is indeed outside the normal window of relatively better weather. Possible factors include commemoration of the anniversary of Kim Jong Il's death; a ploy to capture the attention of new administrations in Washington, Beijing, Seoul and Japan; and intent to buttress the North's claim to having a nuclear deterrent by demonstrating that it can launch at any time of the year. There might also be a simpler explanation, namely that DPRK engineers think they have found and fixed the problem that caused the previous tests to fail and have persuaded Kim Jong Un that there is no technical reason to delay.

What are the larger implications of North Korea's announcement and why do these rocket launches provoke such global condemnation?

Fingar:  Perhaps the primary reason is that North Korea is widely perceived to be dangerous and more than a little bizarre. In other words, it is an easy target and symbolic embodiment of "worst case" fears about what a defiant and "irrational" country might do with its nuclear and missile capabilities.

The world also sees that North Korea's attempt to launch a satellite is interpreted, not unreasonably, as defiance of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718, which demands that the DPRK not conduct any further nuclear test or launch a ballistic missile. Pyongyang argues that a rocket used for space launches is not a ballistic missile, and therefore is not proscribed by the U.N. resolution.

Straub: North Korea has been developing medium- and long-range missiles for more than two decades, during which time it has repeatedly attacked South Korea and threatened the United States and other countries. It has also been working on its nuclear program and has already tested two nuclear devices. The fear is that North Korea is trying to miniaturize a nuclear device that could be used as a warhead on a long-range missile.

In January 2011, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates voiced U.S. concern that North Korea was becoming a direct threat to it, and that Pyongyang could successfully develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capability within five years. 

How is the international community likely to respond to the launch?

Straub: The international community, including the United States, has many limits on how it can respond. North Korea threatens the security of South Korea, and so the international community has to be careful not to do anything that might result in North Korea attacking the South. Similar to how it has condemned North Korea's previous rocket tests, the U.N. Security Council will undoubtedly take up the issue again.

We will have to see what comes out of the U.N. Security Council discussions, but the issue is that China is a de facto ally of North Korea. Although Beijing sometimes agrees to U.N. Security Council resolutions and statements, it does not want to put too much pressure on the regime out of fear that it could cause internal instability in North Korea.

Is there anything more that Washington can do to prevent these provocations by the North aside from pushing the Six Party Talks and threats of greater sanctions?

Fingar:  Probably not. Some argue that Pyongyang's goal is to use the provocations to persuade the United States to negotiate directly with North Korea, but its conditions for doing so include U.S. acknowledgment – and acceptance – of the North's self-proclaimed status as a nuclear weapon state. That is not likely to happen. I think the best course for the United States would be to avoid over-reacting and to focus attention on Pyongyang's defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

There is speculation that a third underground nuclear test will follow the rocket launch if it fails to put a satellite into orbit.

Hansen: I believe they will test regardless of the outcome of the launch. I have been following the nuclear test site at Punggye-ri all November. Details from a Nov. 19 image show that part of the dirt road into the complex from the valley is unusable, as three bridges have been washed out. Instead they have upgraded an old road that runs up the west side of the valley and enters the complex just in front of the new south tunnel. Imagery on Nov. 24 revealed some changes. The new road is still being used and there appear to be more vehicle tracks going to the support area. The most significant development is the probable clearing of snow at the entrance to the south tunnel. It also appears that the mine cart tracks are being reinstalled on the spoil pile to carry dirt out from the tunnel, but I can't be sure of that.

Beth Duff-Brown is the communications manager for the Center for International Security and Cooperation. Sarah Bhatia is the communications coordinator for the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.



Beth Duff-Brown, Center for International Security and Cooperation: (650) 725-6488,

Sarah Bhatia, Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center: (650) 724-5646,


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